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McCann just keeps getting better and better

ATLANTA - A catcher hasn't been the National League's MVP since Cincinnati Reds great Johnny Bench in 1972. Could this be the year?

If the Atlanta Braves make it to the postseason, Brian McCann figures to be a very, very strong candidate.

Few players mean more to their teams than the Duluth graduate, who will be the Braves' cleanup hitter as well as the handler of a revamped pitching staff.

McCann is essential to Atlanta's hopes. That's why everyone was so concerned when he was hit on the right hand by a foul tip last weekend.

"We can't afford to lose Mac," Braves manager Bobby Cox said.

Another foul tip got McCann on the knee a few days later, but he goes into the season starting tonight at Philadelphia in the best shape of his life and seemingly ready for his best year yet.

"I think I'm getting better with age," said McCann, still just 25.

No one would be surprised to see the left-handed hitter maintain a .300 average while hitting 30 to 35 homers and driving in more than 100 runs. Those are rare numbers indeed for a catcher.

"As good as he's been, I think Mac's ready to take it up another notch," reigning National League batting champ Chipper Jones. "And if he does, our lineup is gong to be very, very good."

McCann, who hit .301 with 42 doubles, 23 homers and 87 RBIs last year, lost more than 20 pounds during the offseason, with defense in mind.

"I want to be known as an all-around catcher, not just a hitter," he said.

But the ball jumped off McCann's bat during his time with Team USA in the World Baseball Classic and he stung the ball once he returned to the Braves, getting hits in his first two at-bats.

That got teammates and coaches talking. Just how good a season could McCann have?

"I think he could hit .320, maybe .330," Jones said. "And he's capable of hitting 30 or 35 homers. He's that kind of hitter. He can hit for average and power."

McCann is the first Braves player to make the NL All-Star team in each of his first three seasons and no catcher in baseball has matched his productivity during that time.

McCann has 114 doubles, 65 homers and 272 RBIs the past three seasons while posting a .297 average. Joe Mauer of Minnesota has a higher average at .317, but McCann has more than twice as many homers.

Others talk about McCann being even more productive this year than last, with hitting coach Terry Pendleton mentioning .330 with 30 homers and 100-plus RBIs. But Cox says he is just happy with what McCann has been producing each year.

"I'd be satisfied with the season he had last year the rest of my career," the veteran manager said. "He's a real good clutch guy. Just a tough, tough out.

"He doesn't strike out much at all and he's got a chance to get a hit every time. He's got some real pop, too. I can't say enough about him offensively, or defensively for that matter. His defense has come on strong."

That's why McCann lost the weight. But it could have made him even better at the plate as well.

"I think Mac could put up some big, big numbers this year," Braves right fielder and long-time friend Jeff Francoeur said. "He can just flat out hit."

SideBar: THE McCANN FILE

Who: Brian McCann

Age: 25

Position: Catcher

High school: Duluth

Personal: Married to the former Ashley Jarusinksi

Residence: Suwanee

How acquired by Braves: 2nd-round draft choice in 2002

2008 season: .301 average with 42 doubles, 23 homers and 87 RBIs

Career stats: .297 average with 70 homers and 295 RBIs in 473 games

Spring update: Lost more than 20 pounds in the offseason by changing his diet and running. ... Played for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, hitting .333 with a homer and six RBIs. ... Saw limited exhibition action with the Braves, batting .269. ... Got a scare when a foul tip off the bat of Mark Teixeira hit him on the right ring figure, but escaped injury.