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Francoeur's never met a pitch he doesn't like

ATLANTA - Oh to be Jeff Francoeur, where every trim of your locks, shave of your stubble and sharply hit ball is thought to be a slump-buster.

Fans want to know what's wrong with Frenchy. Why is he struggling this year, going through stretches of-2 for-36 and 3-for-29 at the plate, after going supernova when called up from the minors last summer? There has to be something different about a guy who hit .300 last year and is at .231 this season, right?

No, there isn't.

Francoeur's problem is the reason the Braves were hesitant to call him up in the first place, even as injuries and Raul Mondesi ravaged the roster a year ago.

Francoeur's problem is the same as Andruw Jones' problem at Francoeur's age.

Francoeur's problem is every pitch looks like a pinata to him, and somebody forgot to put on his blindfold.

He's a free-swinger - see the ball, hit the ball. That's fine in the minor leagues, with the Braves' affiliates in Rome and Mississippi. It's acceptable even in Atlanta, at least until the opposition figures out he swings at the first pitch more than 50 percent of the time.

Getting Francoeur out becomes exponentially easier from there. Pitch low and away or high and tight on the first pitch and, at worst, a pitcher is ahead in the count. And in the Major Leagues, a pitcher ahead in the count is a pitcher thinking about his next fat contract.

In Rome and Mississippi, pitchers will make mistakes with their location. Or they'll hang a curveball. Or leave a changeup high in the strike zone. Francoeur capitalizes on those errors.

But in the big leagues, where pitchers make only a handful of mistake pitches per game, Francoeur rarely gets the pitch he wants. When he does, he hits three home runs in nine at-bats as he did in April. Or goes 3-for 6-with four RBIs like in Sunday's game against the Mets.

It's just enough to give the fans hope, much like that one good golf shot every duffer hits late in his round.

But he will have more slumps than spurts as long as he's flailing at any pitch located in the same area code as the batter's box. He's yet to walk this year in 130 at bats.

Yet there is no reason for alarm. Andruw Jones - called up to the bigs at 19, two years younger than Francoeur - hit .231 his first full season with the Braves only to hit .270 or better with 25-plus home runs and 80-plus RBIs the next three.

Plate discipline is something most hitters acquire in four or five years playing in the minors. Francoeur and Jones didn't get that chance.

"He's learning now," Jones said a week ago. "He's learning on the job in the big leagues, and he's going to be a great hitter in the future."

That, of course, begs the question of whether Francoeur would be better off playing in Class AAA Richmond this year than at Turner Field. No way. You can't send the wunderkind back to the farm after he's seen Paris, or in this case Atlanta.

Again, ask Jones. He hit two home runs in the 1996 World Series after being called up from the minors late in the season. He hasn't played a minor league game since, not even as part of a rehab assignment.

Neither will Francoeur. And the sooner fans quit fretting over his haircuts, facial hair and occasional great game and show the same patience he needs to practice at the plate, the

better.