April 2013

Jason Heyward Undergoes Appendectomy

Uncooperative weather is not the only news coming out of Colorado for the Atlanta Braves. The team announced that right fielder Jason Heyward underwent a successful appendectomy at Rose Medical Center in Denver on Monday evening.

On Tuesday, the Braves placed Heyward on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to April 21. They have recalled infielder Tyler Pastornicky from Triple-A Gwinnett. Pastornicky is batting .351 with a homer, seven RBI and 11 runs scored in 18 games.

Heyward had gotten off to a slow start in 2013, batting just .121 with two home runs and five RBI in 17 games prior to the procedure. Recovery time typically requires approximately two weeks according to the Mayo Clinic.

Atlanta has multiple options in the outfield during Heyward’s absence, but the most likely solution would be to platoon reserve outfielders Reed Johnson and Jordan Schafer in right field.

The club could slide Justin Upton over to right, which would allow Evan Gattis to start in left. Upton played right field exclusively while with the Arizona Diamondbacks from 2007-2012, before shifting to left field after being acquired by Atlanta in January.

Gattis, a catcher who has played a handful of games at first base in order to keep his bat in the lineup on a daily basis, has 37 games of outfield experience in the minor leagues. The return of Freddie Freeman will put an end to the shuffling of Gattis and Chris Johnson at first base.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has utilized Gattis as the primary cleanup man after Freeman was placed on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right oblique on April 7. Gattis played six games in left field during spring training, starting two of them.

Braves Notebook: Off To A Hot Start

The Braves bring the best record in baseball into their first series against the National League East rival Nationals on Friday. The lineup has been productive despite dealing with its share of injuries and slow starts, while the pitching staff has been better than advertised. That combination has Atlanta riding a six-game win streak as they head to Washington.

Leading things off…

The changes in the lineup were prompted more by injuries than by necessity. Andrelton Simmons’ swollen thumb sidelined him for the final two games of the Cubs series and led to a brief renaissance for B.J. Upton at the top of the order.

Despite some quick results – reaching base in six of nine plate appearances – Upton was unable to continue that trend during the Marlins series. After a 14 at-bat hitless streak, he was given the day off on Wednesday.  With Simmons back atop the lineup and getting on base at a good clip (4-for-12, three runs, two RBI vs. Miami), the experimentation with the leadoff spot is likely over for now.

Right after that…

The struggles of B.J. Upton have somewhat distracted from the slump that Jason Heyward finds himself in to open the season.  Hitting second in the order, Heyward has provided just two hits – both in the April 3 win over Philadelphia – in 28 at-bats.  He was given the day off on Tuesday and will be looking to snap out of his current 0-for-21 skid when the series against the Nationals opens on Friday.

Gattis cleaning up…

The loss of Freddie Freeman to the 15-day disabled list with a strained right oblique (a move made on Sunday) has opened the door for rookie Evan Gattis to bat cleanup for the last four games. The burly catcher belted key home runs on Tuesday and Wednesday and is now batting .391 (9-for-23) with three homers and six RBI in his six starts overall this season.

Just in case his Spring Training numbers didn’t provide a big enough sampling of Gattis’ run-producing potential, then feel free to take a look at his tear through the minor leagues. In exactly 162 games played between 2011 and 2012, he batted .315/.387/.604 with 44 doubles, 40 home runs and 138 RBI in 691 plate appearances. Gattis earned his catchy nickname (“El Oso Blanco”) after hitting .303 with 16 homers 53 games for Zulia in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Maholm certainly pitching like a #2 starter…

Atlanta has gotten the best pitching in the majors (1.89 ERA through its first nine games), another key to the club’s early success. Tim Hudson, Kris Medlen and Mike Minor were expected to be the club’s featured trio. Rookie Julio Teheran turned into one of the bigger stories in Spring Training, which allowed veteran left-hander Paul Maholm to ply his craft in relative obscurity.

There has been nothing obscure about his first two outings, however.

Maholm, who was acquired from the Cubs prior to last season’s non-waiver trade deadline, is currently enjoying the best stretch of his career. Since a start for Chicago on June 29, 2012, Maholm has made 20 appearances (19 starts) and turned in an 11-5 record with a 2.27 ERA in 126.1 IP.

He closed out Grapefruit League play by not allowing an earned run in his last 24.2 IP, and has continued to mow down hitters to open the regular season.

The lefty has won his first two starts, tossing 12.2 shut-out innings in the process. Only two pitchers in baseball have a longer scoreless streak to start the season. Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw has 16 innings, and Giants veteran Barry Zito has worked 14 frames without allowing a run.

Braves Notebook: A Tale of Two Uptons

Though sometimes rainy and a touch chilly, the Atlanta Braves opened the season in the exact fashion one would have imagined after taking one look at the lineup – power with a side of strikeouts. The latter could not stop the former from helping to propel the club to three wins in its first four contests, however.

One Upton thriving, the other is scuffling…

Justin Upton finished Spring Training with a power surge which he carried right over to the regular season. He homered in each of the first two games of the Phillies series before Cliff Lee kept him in the yard on Thursday. Not to worry, Upton was right back at it against Scott Feldman of the Cubs, connecting for his third homer of the season in the  bottom of the first inning. He is 4-for-13 with three homers and five RBI’s in four games thus far.

“It’s even more fun seeing him hit in the cage,” said shortstop Andrelton Simmons. “You just watch and try to pick up stuff from him. He’s really talented and he has a nice swing, everything is nice and smooth. He’s going to do this all year.”

Brother B.J. is having a more difficult time in his first few games in Atlanta. Opening the season against the Philadelphia trio of Cole Hamels, Roy Halladay and Lee is seldom a recipe for offensive success, and is a big reason why the Braves center fielder is still looking for his first hit. Upton is 0-for-14 with nine strikeouts. He was hit by a pitch, stole a base and scored a run on Friday against Chicago.

“He’s coming along,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez. “You see the at-bats and the swing is getting there. Everybody gets into one of those things, whether it’s in July or August. All those guys that win batting titles, they go in little slumps somewhere down the line. It just so happens that B.J.’s is the first four games of the season, but he’s fine.”

Gattis starts career with a bang…

The Evan Gattis story was one of the most talked about topics of the spring. His raw power and incredible journey back into baseball captured the attention of fans and teammates alike. It seemed only fitting that the slugging catcher would belt a home run in his Major League debut.

“Did you guys think anything else was going to happen? Didn’t surprise me one bit,” quipped Gonzalez.

Gattis, 26, connected against Halladay on Wednesday to become the seventh Atlanta player to homer in his first big league game.

“Couldn’t have planned it,” said Gattis. “Just excited and happy, a little emotional after the game when I got the lineup [card] and my home run [ball] back. It’s just too cool.”

His teammates were not only thrilled about the home run, but also shared some praise for his overall performance.

“Oh, that’s awesome for him,” said right fielder Jason Heyward on Wednesday. “Really happy for him. Roy Halladay is not a bad one to have your first homer off of… but, I feel like he did a good job behind the plate tonight too.”

Teheran primed for first start of the season…

Another man who enjoyed quite a run through the Grapefruit League was righty Julio Teheran. He will make his first start of 2013 on Saturday evening against the Cubs.

Teheran, 22, benefited from a trip to winter ball in the Dominican Republic after a disappointing season in Triple-A Gwinnett (7-9, 5.08 ERA in 26 starts). He began utilizing a two-seam fastball and pitching with more of a plan after meeting his pitching idol Pedro Martinez. Those two things transformed him back into one of the top prospects in baseball.

While it appears Gonzalez will divide time pretty equally between Gattis and Gerald Laird behind the plate, the manager did say he intends to pair the rookie Teheran with the veteran Laird.

“I think Laird and Teheran will be locked in,” said Gonzalez. “I like that. They’ve had some pretty good success in spring training… and you’ve got a guy that’s handled situations behind the plate.”

Teheran and Laird worked together throughout a spring which saw the 22-year-old righty turn in a 1.04 ERA in 26 innings. He struck out 35 batters while allowing just seven hits as well.

“He’s got that breaking stuff and a changeup that’s come a long way, but I think the pitch that’s really putting him over the edge is that two-seamer he’s learned to locate and throw in the zone,” said Laird. “When you can establish a pitch like that with his velocity, you’re going to get a lot of ground balls and that’s huge.”