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Coach Mazzone has had mounds of success

If the Braves still played in Boston, talk radio would be singing the funeral dirge of the National League East front-runners, who had the same record as the Red Sox when they arrived at Fenway Park for last night's game.

Atlanta had lost three straight and was 4-6 over its last 10 games. Veteran starters John Thomson (finger) and Mike Hampton (forearm) are ailing and the sky is falling.

But the Braves don't call Boston home anymore and, according to pitching coach Leo Mazzone, all is fine with his staff.

''Actually with the offday, it turned out OK for us," said Mazzone. ''Because Tim Hudson and John Smoltz can start on their regular days and we can bring on Hampton behind [Horacio] Ramirez, who will pitch on his regular turn when we leave here."

Hampton's injury is not as serious as Thomson's, who has a partial tear of the flexor tendon in the index finger of his pitching hand. Atlanta is expected to recall Kyle Davies, a top pitching prospect from Triple A Richmond, to make his major league debut against Tim Wakefield tonight at Fenway.

Mazzone isn't worried about pitching depth. Pitching is the primary reason Atlanta has won 13 consecutive division titles and was a half-game ahead of Florida and Washington going into last night's game.

The Braves have been pitching rich.

The list of Cy Young Award winners is impressive. Greg Maddux won it three times, Tom Glavine twice, and Smoltz once. In addition, Russ Ortiz, Hampton, Denny Neagle, and Kevin Millwood have had impressive runs during their time in Atlanta.

But it is more than just individual stars. Atlanta's entire staff has been razor sharp. For instance, from 1992 through 2002, the Braves finished first or second in earned run average in the major leagues.

The Braves have produced nine 20-game winners during Mazzone's watch. From 1991, when he joined the Braves, until last year, there had been at least one and as many as three Braves pitchers named to the All-Star team.

Mazzone is the common link. Atlanta's pitching coach is regarded as a guru who brings out the best in his pitchers.

For example, Jaret Wright, who was picked up on waivers from the Padres two years ago, had the best year of his career -- 15-8 -- with the Braves and then scored a huge contract with the Yankees.

Then there is Thomson, a journeyman starter who reached a career high in victories last year when he finished 14-8.

Wright and Thomson are just the most recent diamonds in the rough developed by the Braves. Former Red Sox hurler John Burkett was plucked off waivers by Atlanta from Tampa Bay and made the NL All-Star team with a 12-12 mark and 3.04 ERA in 2001.

So how do the Braves do it?

''No. 1, I think we've been fortunate to have great pitchers," said Mazzone. ''No. 2, we have a great pitcher's manager [Bobby Cox] who knows how to handle pitchers better than anybody in the history of the game."

Mazzone is an old-school pitching coach who thinks too much is made of pitch counts and saving arms.

''We allow them to throw as much as they want and encourage them to throw as much as they want as far as practice goes," said Mazzone.

Pitch counts? ''Pitch counts are not a determining factor when a pitcher should come in or come out," said Mazzone. ''The pitch count is a number that varies with each individual. I wish they wouldn't put pitch counts on the scoreboard because they might convince some pitcher that they are getting tired."

Interestingly, Mazzone said, in the day before pitch counts were put on the ballpark scoreboards, he'd ''like to cheat with my clicker."

''I absolutely would cheat," he said. ''I wouldn't tell certain pitchers how many pitches they threw. I worked with Smoltzy -- in his younger days. I can remember lying to him years ago in Los Angeles. He had a shutout going, 2-0, after eight innings. I told him his pitch count was way down around 80 and he actually felt a little better. Actually, he threw about 138 pitches. I always believed what Whitey Ford said. If you pitch nine innings and you throw 125 pitches, you did one heck of a job."

Still, Mazzone doesn't want to wear out his arms.

''You can't go out there and throw 140, 150, or 160 pitches every time," he said. ''But you can't think that once somebody gets to 100 pitches, they are automatically done, either. We were in LA this year and people were second-guessing whether the Dodgers should have kept [Jeff] Weaver in there with two out in the seventh or eighth inning and his pitch count was up to 94. That's a joke."

He said too much emphasis has been put on pitch counts. ''I don't think it has [anything] to do with it. The thing I'm most proud of is the track record of our starting pitchers and their health over the last 14 years," said Mazzone.

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