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Sapakoff: New Sun Trust Park, new pressure for Atlanta Braves

April 15, 2017 GMT

ATLANTA — The 2017 Atlanta Braves didn’t have to look hard for reminders of a winning past. The brass brought out the good stuff Friday night for the opener at Sun Trust Park, the Braves’ $672 million new home just outside the I-285 perimeter in Cobb County.

Hank Aaron, the real home run king, threw out the first pitch. Phil Niekro and Dale Murphy took part in extended pre-game ceremonies. So did stars of 14 straight division titles and the 1995 World Series: John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, Chipper Jones and skipper Bobby Cox.

Wide-eyed young Braves thought it was cool.

This team isn’t threatened by history, embracing it before and after a 5-2 victory over the lowly San Diego Padres.

The Braves think they are good, never mind the 3-6 record.

“We’re playing just fine,” 23-year-old shortstop Dansby Swanson said. “It’s just a few hits here and there. You guys have seen it; we’re playing hard every night.”

Fans in the sellout crowd of 41,149 hoped for a better start from a team coming out of near-wholesale rebuild mode.

So did management. The plan, aka The Plan, was to time quality baseball with the first season at Sun Trust. General Manager John Coppolella said late in a 95-loss 2015 season (that preceded a 93-loss 2016 season) that the Braves would be “a really good team in 2017.”

Atlanta doesn’t have to make the playoffs this year to show significant progress. Sun Trust Park’s debut doesn’t have to echo memories of the best years at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field.

But something resembling a .500 record isn’t too much to ask.

Sun Trust trust is at stake.

Nothing worse than a new ballpark with lots of empty seats in August.

The pressure is real.

But it’s early enough to remain confident.

Kemp and Inciarte

Braves players get a full dose of tradition every time they open their Sun Trust Park clubhouse doors.

A poster-sized framed photo of Sid Bream’s 1992 National League Championship Series-winning slide is attached to the wall in a tunnel leading to the field, which leads to lots of opportunities to avoid losing 90-plus games.

Good signs for Braves fans hoping for a return to glory:

- Baseball America just ranked Atlanta’s minor league talent No. 1 in baseball, up from No. 3 in 2016 and No. 29 in 2015 (the Yankees are No. 2).

- Outfielder Matt Kemp, 8-for-16 this season before a hamstring injury, hopes to come off the 10-day Disabled List on Wednesday. Kemp, a critical mid-season acquisition last year, should make slugger Freddie Freeman and almost everyone else in the batting order a little better.

- Center fielder Ender Inciarte seems on the verge of a breakout season at 26. A two-homer outburst in the Braves’ 5-4 win in Miami on Wednesday night plus a two-run shot Friday night (the first at Sun Trust Park) matches his 2016 total over 522 at-bats.

Bad signs:

- The Braves haven’t been good on defense, or hitting with runners in scoring position, or in the bullpen.

‘Great make-up’

We must keep in mind that Swanson, the top overall pick in the 2015 draft and hitting .150, was starting at Vanderbilt two years ago. And most of the rest of the Braves’ top prospects are still in the minors.

Asked to summarize the personality of the big league club, Swanson didn’t hesitate: “Professional,” he said. “Everybody comes to play every day.”

That comes from salt-of-the-earth Brian Snitker, 61 and in his first full year as a big league manager but his 41st season in the Braves’ organization. He’s a grateful man who takes little for granted.

“We have great make-up with this group,” catcher Tyler Flowers said. “We’ve really meshed. It started out last season, especially when Kemp arrived. And we’ve been in all the games this year. We just have to keep grinding and figure out a way to win.”

The new digs might play a part in that.

It felt that way Friday night.

“It’s amazing what they did with this ballpark,” Inciarte said. “You can feel the positive atmosphere.”

That includes all the living and posterized reminders of a winning standard Braves fans enjoyed for so many seasons at the last two ballparks.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff