LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Dan Uggla and his arms, bigger than ever, entered the Braves clubhouse Tuesday reporting early for duty.
Year 2 of the Uggs Era surely cannot be stranger than the first Braves season was for the second baseman with thigh-sized biceps. He’d prefer it be steadier, and things already feel more normal for him.
“It’s different already, a more comfortable feeling,” said Uggla, who said he no longer feels pressure to prove anything, not like last spring when he had received a five-year, $62 million contract extension before ever playing a game for the Braves.
“I already know where my place is on this team,” said Uggla, who had a career-low .233 average, but a career-high 36 homers and an Atlanta-record 33-game hitting streak. “I already know that everybody here respects me as a ballplayer, the way I go about my business. Now it’s not like trying to set the stage.”
His hitting streak that was the sixth-longest in the majors in the past three decades, and began July 5 after he hit a league-worst .173 in 86 games through Independence Day.
His average was so low when his streak began that it was still just .233 when it ended. No other player has had an average below .300 at the end of a streak as long as Uggla’s.
“He earned respect,” Braves backup catcher David Ross said. “You can’t talk about getting respect like that; you have to earn it. You go out there and you’re hitting a buck-90 or whatever he was hitting for that long, and you’re like, this guy’s in the 5-hole?
“But he always busted his tail down the line, and when he went through that hitting streak everybody was so happy for him. Those are the guys you want to be teammates with.”
As much as it pains him to say something that might be construed as excuse-making, he acknowledges pressing at the outset of the 2011 season, trying to show what he could do after being traded from the Marlins and given that large extension.
“Say what you want, when you come to a new team, whether you’ve got a big contract or not you’re going to want to impress,” he said. “You’re going to want to impress the front office, and even thought I played for Fredi [Gonzalez, Braves manager] for four years before that, I wanted to do good for him….
“This year, I just want to go out and play. I’m already a part of this team. I’m not just wearing the Braves logo. I’ve got a part in these guys’ lives.”
Gonzalez had previously managed Uggla with the Marlins.
“It’s human nature,” Gonzalez said. “You go to a new place and have a big contract, you want to do more than you’re capable of and impress. I think when he got settled in and comfortable with his surroundings, he was his normal self.”
After hitting .173 with a puny .241 on-base percentage and 11 homers in his first 86 games, Uggla hit .301 with a .386 OBP and 24 homers in his final 75 games.
During the hit streak he hit .377 with 15 homers and 32 RBIs, and the Braves went 19-14 in that span despite having most of their other top hitters in slumps.
“Once he started that hitting streak he was pretty consistent for us the rest of the way,” said Braves veteran Eric Hinske. “He still hit 36 home runs and drove in a lot of runs. The guy’s a pure power hitter and solid defensively.”
What impressed teammates more than anything was how Uggla handled the difficult stretch in the first half, when he faced constant questions about his anemic average.
Uggla was at his locker after every game to answer reporters questions, never getting terse or complaining. Teammates said he was upbeat ever day in the clubhouse, convinced he would get things turned around soon.
“It’s hard to be the same guy when you’re not doing well, and he never changed,” Hinske said.
Now Uggla is back, and the 6-foot fireplug added more muscle after a winter of heavy weightlifting with his brother at home in Franklin, Tenn. Most of the added bulk appears to be in his arms, which were already enormous.
“I just got as big and strong as I could,” he said. “I gained probably about 15 or 20 pounds, up to about 225. But I still feel athletic. I’ll probably trim it down to about 210, 215 this spring, but I really, really got after it. I didn’t take any weeks off, started working out as soon as I got home and kept it going until now. So I’m ready.”
After the Braves lost 20 of their last 30 games and blew an 8-1/2 game wild-card lead to miss the playoffs, Uggla was pleased to see so many position players report to camp early, including six of eight projected starters. Official full-squad reporting day is Friday.
“We’ve got a lot of guys with I think a chip on their shoulders this year,” he said. “Some things happened and they took it upon themselves this offseason to prepare themselves for the season. Not just for what happened in September but from an individual standpoint — they’re like, ‘I’m not going to let that happen again.’”
The only projected starters not in camp already are center fielder Michael Bourn and rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky, who is in California has previously planned to work out with veteran shortstop Jack Wilson, who has a full infield in his backyard.
Wilson will serve as a mentor to Pastornicky, and Uggla is eager to work with his new double-play partner when full-squad workouts begin Saturday. Gonzalez said he plans to have Uggla and Pastornicky always be in the lineup together in Grapefruit League games, so they’ll have a maximum amount of chances to get comfortable.
“He’s a great kid,” Uggla said. “I got to know him last year in spring. He works hard. He’s ready. Having a guy like Jack around is going to make him that much better. The only other guy who might be able to pick it a hair better than Jack is Gonzo [former Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez, whom Pastornicky is to replace].
“I’m really glad that we signed Jack [to come] back. If we can’t have Gonzo, then Jack’s a good second choice.”