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M-Braves fall short on field, maintain decent pace at gate

The most telling number from Year 2 of the Mississippi Braves could be 55, the number of players to wear the tomahawk-emblazoned uniform over the course of the season.

Then again, a more telling number might be 15,229 — the announced number of fans who turned out at Trustmark Park on back-to-back nights in August for big leaguer Chipper Jones’ rehabilitation assignment.

The M-Braves, whose lineup never had the star power of the 2005 team and seemed to change almost on a daily basis, finished with losing records in both halves of the Southern League season, missing the playoffs for the second straight year.

At the gate, they drew almost as well as they did in their inaugural season, buoyed by the record-setting crowds drawn to see Jones.

“We had sellouts both nights and everything from our promotions to food and beverage went as smoothly as it could go,” said M-Braves general manager Steve DeSalvo. “That told us that our operation is running smoothly.”

Overall, there were far fewer complaints and many more compliments from fans this year, DeSalvo said: “From a business standpoint, we’re very pleased.”

He said his next goal is to average 4,000 per game in 2007.

“Our challenge is to keep the interest level high year after year,” he said. “And if the team starts winning, that will just be icing on the cake.”

A plethora of injuries, promotions and other transactions kept the M-Braves’ roster in a state of flux and likely contributed to their lack of consistency on the field.

Who’s on first? Well, six different players started there. Seven started at second base, six at third and six in both left and right field. The club went through 17 different starting pitchers.

The bench got so thin near season’s end that coach Jon Williams was activated as an emergency catcher. He played in three games, even pitched a couple of innings.

“A winning team gets to be like a family,” outfielder/first baseman Mike Rosamond said. “And we didn’t get a chance to be that way, at least not on the field. So many things happened, and it just snowballed on us.”

The lineup manager Jeff Blauser trotted out for Monday’s season finale — a 6-1 loss to Montgomery before an announced 2,922 — scarcely resembled the one that began the season at the TeePee on April 6. Only three players started both games, and two of those were playing different positions Monday than they did in April.

Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Atlanta’s top-ranked prospect, is in Cuba, playing for the U.S. national team in an Olympics qualifier.

Second baseman Martin Prado is in Atlanta; center fielder Gregor Blanco is at Triple-A Richmond; shortstop Luis Hernandez is nursing a sore elbow; right fielder Matt Esquivel is on the suspended list.

Monday’s loss, their seventh in the last nine games, dropped the M-Braves to 58-80 overall. The game — and the season — ended quietly, a 1-2-3 ninth culminated by a pop-up to third base.

Kurt Kemp, Atlanta’s recently appointed farm director, said the Double-A club’s poor record doesn’t imply the season was a disappointment.

“There are so many things at the minor league level that affect won-lost record,” said Kemp, a longtime scout in the Atlanta system.

“Our No. 1 priority for our players is their individual development. Obviously, when you keep score, winning matters. But our priority is development, and our decisions (on player movement) are driven by what’s best for the players.”

“Would we like to have won more? Sure,” said Blauser, the former All-Star shortstop for the Braves who made his managerial debut this season. “But the bottom line here is getting guys ready to play for Atlanta. That’s what we really shoot for.”

Blauser said his basic goal — following that of the organization — was to have players who were better on Sept. 4 than they were on April 6.

“I think we did that,” he said. “I think they all learned this year, myself included.

“But there’s a lot more work to be done. That’s the beauty of this game: You never figure it all out. There’s always room for improvement.”

A number of M-Braves earned promotions this season, and some likely laid the foundation for advancement in 2007.

“Without getting into specifics, we feel like a number of kids in Mississippi made progress this year,” Kemp said. “We’ll sit down and evaluate everybody after the season. It’s too early now even to speculate on where players might go.”