published Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

Atlanta Braves eye better batting

Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) swings during the fifth inning of their baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at Turner Field, Saturday, June 15, 2013, in Atlanta.
Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman (5) swings during the fifth inning of their baseball game against the San Francisco Giants at Turner Field, Saturday, June 15, 2013, in Atlanta.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA -- Manager Fredi Gonzalez knows the Atlanta Braves have a few batting problems to correct if they're going win the National League East for the first time in eight years.

The Braves are striking out at an alarming rate, particularly with runners in scoring position. They've been shut out in 11 games after getting blanked just 13 times all last season.

And they're just 4-25 without a home run, a potential pitfall if they reach the postseason and face a loaded pitching staff.

Even so, Gonzalez isn't about to start complaining. Atlanta is 6 1/2 games ahead of Washington in the division, owns the majors' best home record and has rallied for 23 comeback wins to lead the NL.

"We couldn't be in a better place, really," Gonzalez said. "Here we are complaining -- there's not a perfect team out there -- but we're in first place. We're pitching good and we feel like we haven't swung the bats like we're capable of swinging, so you feel good. It's a good place to be."

With the Braves beginning a three-game home series tonight against the woeful Miami Marlins, the team is looking for more improvement at the plate.

Even after sweeping three games from NL West-leading Arizona this past weekend, Atlanta is hitting just .227 with runners in scoring position, worst in the league. Their strikeout total is the majors' second-highest.

Second baseman Dan Uggla, left fielder Justin Upton and center fielder B.J. Upton all rank in the top seven in NL strikeouts, but Justin Upton points out that the starters and reserves have shown a knack for picking each other up when somebody else is struggling.

First baseman Freddie Freeman has been the most consistent hitter this year, and the Braves got an unexpected boost when 26-year-old rookie Evan Gattis made the team in spring training and earned NL rookie of the month honors in April and May.

Gattis has missed 12 games with a right oblique strain and his timetable to return is uncertain, but Upton is confident Atlanta still will succeed. That certainly was the case when Heyward, Freeman and catcher Brian McCann spent time on the disabled list earlier this year.

"Yeah, when we've been missing with some injuries, but we've had that one hot guy and everybody else contributing," Upton said. "It's kind of helped get us to this point. I think down the stretch we really need everybody to be comfortable, like it's been the last few days, to get a run from anybody."

Heyward has batted .321 with five homers and 10 RBIs in his last 26 games after struggling with a .153 average in his first 32.

Uggla has averaged a strikeout every 2.5 at-bats, but two days after first wearing contact lenses June 21 at Milwaukee, he's hit .348 in his last six games to finally get his average over .200.

But Justin Upton, who carried the team as the NL player of the month in April, hit .226 in June with just one homer and eight RBIs. His brother hit .238 in June, but his .177 average this season is a major disappointment for a player signed to the richest free-agent contract in franchise history.

"Those averages -- it's going to be tough to raise them," Gonzalez said. "But I think if you look at the individual months or look at a certain series or 10-day periods and you see good batting averages, total bases and home run total, I think in the big picture that's going to be good."

Gonzalez has what appears to be his best club in three years as manager.

Thanks to Freeman, whose .422 average with runners in scoring position ranks third in the NL, the Braves haven't lacked consistency in the cleanup spot.

"He's consistent, man, really consistent," Heyward said. "He wants to be in that spot every time. He goes up there and tries to put up a good at-bat and get a pitch to hit hard. You don't take it for granted. You really appreciate that about him."

Freeman's confidence has boosted the morale of teammates who sometimes can't shake off a slump.

"He's just starting to scratch the surface of his talent level," Uggla said. "He's starting to figure that out, starting to realize how good he is. It's a fun thing to watch. It's cool to see him, especially with runners on base, he locks in that much more. More times than not, he's going to get the job done."

And so is Atlanta, it appears

With the Uptons, Heyward, Freeman, McCann and Uggla each capable of big power surges, the Braves have a formidable lineup. They are 44-9 when they hit at least one homer.

But facing a Miami team that has the majors' worst winning percentage, Freeman cautions that everyone has to stay focused.

"Obviously the Marlins are behind us, but we know they're going to come in here and try to spoil," Freeman said. "That's what guys that are chugging along are going to do. We're pretty good at home, so hopefully we can keep this going."

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