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Francoeur, McCann doing their part to push Braves into playoffs

ATLANTA - Jeff Francoeur and Brian McCann experienced nothing but division championships growing up in Gwinnett County and rooting for the Atlanta Braves.

That's what made coming up from the minors and helping spark the team to a record 14th consecutive title in 2005 so exciting.

"We didn't want to be the ones to let the streak die," Francoeur said at the time.

It did in 2006, however, and it will take the miracle of miracles for the Braves to make it back to the postseason this year.

The Braves, coming off a 6-1 home stand, aren't mathematically eliminated as they head to Philadelphia to begin their final road trip tonight, but that's about all.

That leaves Francoeur and McCann - the hometown Braves - to wonder about what went wrong again.

"Of course it's disappointing," Francoeur said. "I thought we had a really good team, and we showed it at times. But the injuries just killed us."

"We're not giving up yet," McCann said. "But it's never a good season when you don't make the playoffs."

Francoeur and McCann certainly did their part to get the Braves back to the postseason, although neither is completely satisfied with his individual year.

Francoeur has raised his average with greater plate discipline and has driven in more than 100 runs for the second consecutive year, but his home runs have dropped.

McCann made the All-Star Game for the second year in a row, but has seen his average skid after being bothered by a hand injury early in the season.

At 23, though, they remain two of the top young players in the National League.

"To me, they've both had great seasons," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Any team would love to have two guys like that to build around."

Francoeur's average dropped to .260 last season, and he was out to prove this year that he could hit for a much higher average.

"People were saying that I'd never hit for much of an average because I swung at too many pitches," the Parkview grad said. "I wanted to prove them wrong.

"I'm proudest that I'm hitting .290 and that my walks are up. Last season was just my second season. I was still learning. I knew I wasn't a .260 hitter."

Although still an aggressive hitter, Francoeur is now willing to hit the ball to the opposite field and take a walk. It is the free passes that really stand out.

Francoeur had just 40 career walks coming into this year, but has drawn 41 this season and the ratio went up as the year progressed.

"I think I've shown pitchers that I'm a different hitter now," Francoeur said. "I think they have to respect that."

After hitting 29 homers last year, Francoeur has just 17 this season to go with 37 doubles and 101 RBIs. He says he will come to spring training stronger and in better condition next year.

"I got a little weak in August and I want to avoid that," Francoeur said. "I'm not worried about the homers, but I think I do need to be more careful about eating the right things and being in better shape so I can stay strong all year. I did wear down."

Of course, Francoeur is the only Brave to play in every game this year and he has a streak of 320 consecutive starts dating back to his rookie year.

"Maybe it would be good to take a day off once in a while, but I just don't like being out of the lineup," said Francoeur, who is just one off the team record for outfield assists with 19.

McCann also has carried a heavy workload, and he's done so despite hand and ankle injuries.

"He'll never make excuses, but he's been really banged up," Cox said.

The injury to his left hand bothered McCann at the plate throughout the first half and his defense also suffered a little. But he's had a strong second half.

Although his .273 average certainly doesn't compare to the .333 he hit last year, McCann has 38 doubles, 18 homers and 91 RBIs. Those are especially good power numbers for a catcher.

"Mac is just a good hitter," Cox said. "It's that simple, no matter what his average is."

McCann, a Duluth graduate, has bone chips in his left ankle and may need surgery after the season.

"But right now, I don't think I'll have it," McCann said. "I really only had a problem twice this year and you never want to have surgery if you can avoid it. I think I'll be fine for next year without it, but we'll see."

Francoeur thinks the Braves also will be fine next season, despite the potential loss of center fielder Andruw Jones to free agency and continued concerns about the starting rotation.

"I'm sure they'll try to go out and add the players we need," he said. "We already have a lot of talent. We could be a really good team again. We're already close and I know that nobody wants to miss out on the playoffs again."

Two seasons are two too many, especially for Francoeur and McCann.

SideBar: BRAVES AT PHILLIES

When: Today-Thursday

Where: Philadelphia

Schedule:

' Today, 7:05 p.m. (SS)

' Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. (TBS)

' Thursday, 7:05 p.m. (SS)