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Richmond off to best start in franchise history

After just two winning seasons in the past 11 years, fans of the Richmond Braves certainly deserved a decent team.

They have better than that.

Richmond is off to the best start in franchise history, taking an 18-5 record and eight-game winning streak into the weekend.

A season after having the worst record (57-86) in the Class AAA International League, the R-Braves led the South Division by 81⁄2 games after four weeks.

"We kept robbing them last season, but they didn't have much to begin with," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said during spring training when talking about last year's woes in Richmond.

Atlanta has already started to dip down to AAA for help this season, with the R-Braves losing leading hitter Willie Harris to a call up.

But this year's Richmond team appears well stocked in all areas, with plenty of pitching and hitting, plus speed and defense.

Recently, the pitching staff has been in the spotlight. Especially the starters.

The Braves rotation went into the weekend having worked 432⁄3 consecutive scoreless innings. That is almost unbelievable, no matter the professional level.

In a doubleheader sweep Thursday night over Charlotte, Anthony Lerew allowed two hits over 62⁄3 innings in the opener. Then veteran Trey Hodges gave up just one hit over five innings in the nightcap.

How good has the pitching been? Richmond led the International League with a 2.44 ERA.

Some of the individual ERAs were miniscule. Manny Accosta (3-1 with two saves) was at 0.64, Hodges (1-1) at 0.89, Macay McBride (1-0) at 0.96, Lerew (1-0) at 1.37 and Buddy Hernandez (4-0 with a save) at 1.56.

One shaky start left Buddy Carlyle with a 3.55 ERA, but he was the rotation leader with a 3-1 record.

The R-Braves weren't quite as dominant at the plate, but ranked second in the IL with a .273 team batting average. Even with Harris (.362) gone, Richmond had four .300 hitters - shortstop Yunel Escobar (.323), outfielder Gregor Blanco (.315), first baseman Barbaro Canizarez (.304) and catcher Luis Mendez (.304).

Escobar has also dazzled in the field, teaming with second baseman Martin Prado to give Richmond the best double-play combination in the league.

Richmond (AAA)

Despite their success, the R-Braves played eight home games before hitting a homer. When they finally did, it was a big one. Blanco smacked a grand slam, his first homer in two years and the first with the bases loaded of his career. . . . When Harris was called up to Atlanta, utilityman Jonathan Schuerholz was promoted from Mississippi although he was hitting just .182.

Mississippi (AA)

Atlanta's Southern League team was almost as hot as the AAA one in Richmond. The M-Braves were 20-7 and had a five-game lead in the SL's South Division. . . .

Left-hander Matt Harrison improved to 4-0 and lowered his ERA to 2.14. . . Second baseman Diory Hernandez had five straight two-hit games and was 13-for-30 with seven RBIs over eight games. . . . Outfielder Matt Esquivel homered in three consecutive games and had four in five games, taking over the SL lead with eight. He was also on top with 24 RBIs and 23 runs scored. . . . Mississippi stole nine bases in nine attempts in a game against Mobile. Third baseman Van Pope had three steals. . . . Brad Nelson, who hadn't given up a run in nine relief appearances, and infielder Mike Rozema, batting .294, were promoted from Myrtle Beach.

Myrtle Beach (A)

Catcher Clint Sammons was promoted to Mississippi after Atlanta called up Jarrod Saltalamacchia from the M-Braves. The former Parkview and Georgia standout was hitting .269 with four homers and 13 RBIs. He hit .381 with two homers and nine RBIs on the Pelicans' most recent homestand. . . . Third baseman Eric Campbell could miss another month. He hasn't played since April 12 because of a thumb injury. Campbell, an all-star for Rome in the South Atlantic League last season, was hitting just .179 before being sidelined. . . . James Parr picked up his first victory after three losses, allowing three hits and one run over six innings against Salem. . . . Jonathan Venters, coming back from elbow surgery, didn't allow a run in his first three appearances covering seven innings.

Rome (A)

After starting 3-18, Rome won three straight against Savannah before faltering again by going 1-3 at Columbus. . . . Kris Medlen, who missed the first month of the season because of an injury, took over as the team closer. He had 10 saves and a 0.41 ERA for Danville in the rookie Appalachian League last year. . . . Outfielder Jon Mark Owings of Gainesville went on the DL because of a strained oblique. He was hitting just .203, but had four homers. . . . After fielding problems at shortstop, Chase Fontaine began playing second base. . . . Former Parkview and Georgia Tech pitcher Tim Gustafson was 1-2 with a 3.99 ERA after six starts. He had 27 strikeouts in 261⁄3 innings.