Braves can make big All-Star impact

Braves can make big All-Star impact

ANAHEIM -- When Brian McCann made his Major League debut in 2005, the Braves were in the middle of a journey that would carry them toward what would be the last of their record 14 consecutive division titles. Five years later, as he prepares to enjoy his fifth consecutive All-Star selection, the 26-year-old catcher is enjoying the fact that his hometown team has returned to prominence.

Owners of the National League's best record, the Braves saw five of their players earn All-Star selections this year, their most since sending seven to the 2003 Midsummer Classic.

The other Braves with McCann in Anaheim this week are second baseman Martin Prado, outfielder Jason Heyward, right-handed pitcher Tim Hudson and utility man Omar Infante.

When the Braves determined that Heyward's left thumb injury hadn't healed enough for him to serve as one of the NL's starting outfielders, Phillies manager Charlie Manuel extended an invitation to closer Billy Wagner, who declined because he wanted to spend this week resting his sore right ankle. Wagner will still be recognized for having earned his seventh career All-Star selection.

"It means a lot," McCann said on Monday during the NL All-Star media session of his team's ample representation. "It means we're doing the right thing. We're playing good baseball. We're in first place in a real, real tough division. It's fun to come out here with your peers. We could have had a couple more guys, to be honest with you. We've got three or four guys at home that could easily be sitting here."

With Heyward sidelined, much of the Braves-related focus will be on Prado and Infante, who are enjoying their first All-Star experiences. Though Prado will be sighted early in the All-Star Game, when he bats second, Infante has a chance of making a big impact late, capable of playing the infield and the outfield.

Prado, who leads the NL in both hits (121) and batting average (.325), certainly wasn't a surprise selection. The 26-year-old Venezuelan will be starting at second in place of the injured Chase Utley, who was elected to start through the fan vote. But when Prado was told he was batting second between Hanley Ramirez and Albert Pujols, he was taken aback.

"That's amazing," Prado said. "I never expected that. It's hard for me to believe it, but I'll take it and try to enjoy it and have fun and take advantage of it. I know that I worked for it, but still, there are a lot of guys here that have been great for a long time."

Prado was among the many Braves who were pleasantly surprised when Manuel opted to add the veteran Infante, who participated in the 2002 Futures Game when he was a highly respected prospect in the Tigers organization.

Since then, though, there has been little reason for Infante to believe he would be considered an All-Star candidate. But while hitting .332 and proving capable of being a reliable defender, the 28-year-old Venezuelan caught the attention of Manuel, who wanted the best utility man available on his All-Star roster.

Infante, who has heard the critiques of his game, said the selection motivated him to a torrid week leading into the break, going 13-for-28 on the road against the Phillies and Mets.

"That's helped me," Infante said. "When I knew I was going to the All-Star Game, I thought, 'I have to make good on my numbers.' I'm very happy with that. My average is up to .332 right now. I feel better. I feel comfortable. I feel very happy to be here."

Infante's mother and mother-in-law have traveled from Venezuela to enjoy this All-Star experience and spend some time with their grandson, who happens to be Prado's godchild.

Having earned his third All-Star selection and first since 2004, Hudson traveled to California looking forward to the opportunity to enjoy the experience with his 5-year-old son, Kade. The rejuvenated right-hander has bounced back from the Tommy John surgery that sidelined him for most of the 2009 season and proven to once again be one of the game's top starters.

Hudson ranks sixth in the NL in ERA, at 2.30. He has allowed two earned runs or fewer in 14 of his 18 starts and posted a 2.05 ERA in the 14 outings he's had since the end of April.

"It's really satisfying for me," Hudson said. "Last year at this time, I was wondering how I was going to feel in my first rehab start. You often wonder, 'Are you going to come back healthy? Are you going to come back strong? And if you don't, does that end your career?' Thank God I was able to go out there and prove to Atlanta I was healthy the last month of the season last year.

"I can't think of a year where I have felt this good, physically, from my arm standpoint. It's just refreshing to know you work so hard through the rehab to get back, and not only do you get back and you're able to compete and get guys out at this level, but you have a first half that's All-Star-worthy."

McCann's vision problems forced him to endure rough starts in each of the past two seasons, but he has recently shown why he has already won three NL Silver Slugger Awards. McCann hit .292 with four homers in the 19 games he played entering the break.

This marks the fifth consecutive year McCann received an All-Star selection courtesy of the ballots cast by other Major Leaguers. No other player in Braves history earned as many as three in their first three full seasons at the big league level.

"I'm flying under the radar," he said. "I just want to come here, have fun and go home. But it's an honor every single year to be selected to be here. I'm very humbled by this whole experience. It's something new every year."

Heyward, who was elected to serve as one of the NL's starting outfielders, could make a run at McCann's record, but the 20-year-old right fielder will have to wait another year before playing in his first Midsummer Classic. The rookie phenom is expected to take batting practice with the other NL All-Stars.

"I'm just here ready to enjoy the game and enjoy watching everyone compete in the game," Heyward said.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. MLB.com reporter Mark Bowman contributed to this report. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.