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.

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