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McCann enjoying life in big leagues

ATLANTA - Life couldn't be much better for Atlanta Braves catcher Brian McCann.

A National League All-Star at age 22 in his first full season, he goes to spring training with no job worries and a left ankle that is back to 100 percent after rest and rehab.

For his breakout 2006, the left-hander hitter won a Silver Slugger Award and was selected Brave of the Year.

Neither of those honors was the highlight of Duluth High School graduate's offseason, however.

"I got engaged," McCann said, breaking into a big smile after a workout at Turner Field.

Long-time friend and Braves teammate Jeff Francoeur proposed to his high school girlfriend in September and McCann did the same right after the season.

"We began dating when we where sophomores at Duluth," McCann said of Ashley Jarusinski, who graduated from Auburn University last year and operates an Uptown Girl boutique on Sugarloaf Parkway across from the Arena at Gwinnett Center. "We've been close a long time. I'm really looking forward to getting married."

McCann has some baseball business to take care of first, though.

Right after Valentine's Day, he reports to spring training in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Like his teammates, the goal for 2007 is to get the Braves back to the top of the National League East.

"The bad part of last season was that we couldn't keep the streak going," McCann said of the Braves' run of 14 consecutive division titles coming to an end. "We want to get back to playoffs and I think this team can do it. I'm really excited about our pitching staff."

With Adam LaRoche and Marcus Giles gone from the lineup, however, the Braves need another big year from McCann, who will likely move up to the No. 5 spot in the order behind Chipper and Andruw Jones.

As part of his new prominence, the catcher even has an upgraded locker position at Turner Field, taking Giles' old spot by the shower entrance next to Andruw and across from John Smoltz.

McCann, who turns 23 on Tuesday, says he doesn't feel any extra pressure, though, after last season's breakout. In fact, he says he goes into 2007 much more relaxed.

"I won't be worrying about getting a hit every time up this spring," he said.

Last year, McCann felt the pressure of trying to replace Johnny Estrada as the Braves' regular catcher and he didn't have the spring training he had hoped. But once the season started, there was no stopping him at the plate.

"I never expected anything like that," McCann said. "It was the kind of season you only dream about."

The sweet-swinging catcher built his average early by hitting to the opposite field, then built up his power numbers after the All-Star Game.

The sprained left ankle suffered in early June kept McCann from having enough at-bats to qualify for the National League batting race, but his .333 average would have ranked third. He also had 22 homers and 93 RBIs.

McCann's most impressive statistic, though, was his average with runners on base. He hit .368 - the best in the majors.

"What he did last season was amazing, especially in the clutch," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "As a catcher, can he keep hitting .330? I don't know. But I think he's a .300 hitter and I think you'll see him hitting 30 home runs.

"He's just a tough out with a great swing. I think he'll have another big season and we need him to if we're going to be back on top. He's a key part of our lineup now."

Although the ankle injury suffered on a play at the plate in Arizona didn't effect McCann's hitting after he returned, his throwing never completely recovered. But the Braves don't think the problem is a long-term one.

"He has a good arm," said former Braves catcher Eddie Perez, who will be the bullpen coach this season. "He just needs to get his footwork back."

"I couldn't push off with my left leg after I got hurt," McCann said. "But my ankle feels strong now and I think I'll be fine. I just need to work on some things at spring training."

Despite his low percentage throwing out base stealers, Braves pitchers loved having McCann as the regular catcher. And not just because he gets them some extra runs to work with because of his bat.

"He's the total package," pitcher Tim Hudson said. "For a young guy, he calls a great game. He's like a sponge. He soaks everything in and learns from any mistakes, instead of getting frustrated by them.

"Mac works hard and just keeps getting better and better. That's how a good young player turns into a superstar."