PHOENIX – Their new hitting coach likes what he sees from the Braves, and so does their third baseman. Which hasn’t always been the case with Chipper Jones.
Greg Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher were hired to make the Braves tougher outs than they were in 2011. To make them more confident and competitive and aggressive — and more proficient at situational hitting.
So far, results are encouraging.
After ranking 22nd in the majors in scoring last season at 3.95 runs per game, the Braves were averaging 5.4 in 18 games before Wednesday night’s series finale against the Dodgers. After ranking 26th in the majors with a .308 on-base percentage in 2011, they were 10th at .324 and rising before Wednesday.
After finishing 10th in the National League in slugging percentage at .387 in 2011, they were fourth at .430 before Wednesday.
“I just think we’ve got a lot of people that feel good about themselves,” Walker said. “They’re fighting as a unit, not giving at-bats away. And when you get a bunch of guys that are talented fighting through at-bats — quality at-bats – you get results. So yeah, I’m pleased. We’ve got a long way to go. We’re not naïve to that fact. But we’re pleased. The guys are working. They’ve got great attitudes about the game. They can’t wait to get to the ballpark every day, and we’re playing good.”
They led the National League with 97 runs before Wednesday, despite totaling only 10 during their 0-4 start.
After hitting .165 in those first four games, they hit .286 while winning 11 of the past 14. The Braves had 87 runs and 19 homers in that 14-game stretch.
“It’s been really good, an immediate impact,” Jones said of the effect of Walker and Fletcher. “Guys are well informed before they walk up there. They go up knowing what the tendencies are, and knowing what pitch they want to put in play. And you’re seeing the fruits of that at the plate. I mean, it’s no secret why we’re leading the league in runs scored and hitting the ball out of the park and executing with guys on third and less than two outs, things like that.
“We’re still not where I’d like to see us as far as that’s concerned – guys on third, less than two outs – but situational hitting has been good for the most part.”
The Braves, who went over a month without a sac fly last season and finished 29th in the majors with 30, were tied for third in the majors with seven sac flies before Wednesday. They were also third in the majors in sac bunts with 10.
“Knowing that we scuffled in those situations last year, it was a point of emphasis [beginning in spring training],” Jones said. “Fredi came in [talking about it] from the first day. David Justice had a talk with us. [The ex-Brave was a guest instructor for one week in spring training]. We paid attention.”
In Tuesday’s 4-3 win, the Braves scored the winning run in the ninth inning on a leadoff single by Tyler Pastornicky, a sacrifice bunt by Jack Wilson and a two-out triple by Martin Prado on a seven-pitch at-bat after he fouled off four pitches.
In other words, it was a microcosm of things the Braves have been doing better.
“Unbelievable,” Walker said of the Prado at-bat. “We’ve had a lot of those at-bats this year. Freddie [Freeman] had one in Arizona. That’s what it takes to be a good offensive team. You can’t give away at-bats. Guys want the at-bats. They want to be up there in big situations right now. We’re not always getting it done, but you can tell people want the at-bat. That’s a big thing.”
And to go up with more of a plan than to just swing for the fences.
“I think the situation of the game has got to dictate what you’re trying to do at the plate,” said Jones, who hit a fifth-inning leadoff homer on his 40th birthday Tuesday for the Braves’ first run after they trailed 2-0. “You can’t just go up there and swing from the heels every time up. If you’ve got guys on second and third, do what you’ve got to do to try to get that one run in. Don’t try to knock both in. If you get lucky, yeah. But I just don’t want to see guys go up there trying to hit the three-run homer.
“This team over the years, at times, has sat back and waited for the three-run homer. And if you live by that, you’re going to die by that.”
Hudson scheduled for Sunday
Gonzalez said Tim Hudson was still scheduled to come off the disabled list and start Sunday against Pittsburgh. He is returning from offseason back surgery and made his fourth and final rehab start Tuesday at Triple-A Gwinnett.
The Braves had left open the possibility that Hudson could have an extra day of rest and start Monday instead of Sunday, swapping starts with Mike Minor. But as of Tuesday, Gonzalez said the plan was to start Hudson on Sunday.
Gearrin ready for whatever
Rookie reliever Cory Gearrin got the news Tuesday at 8 a.m. that he’d been recalled from Triple-A by the Braves, and was booked on a 3 p.m. flight from Atlanta to Los Angeles.
The sidearmer made his flight, endured a ride through L.A. rush-hour traffic and got to the Tuesday night’s game right after the Braves had finished batting practice.
He didn’t pitch Tuesday, but Gearrin was ready. Is ready. Will be ready anytime.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Gearrin, who had 15 strikeouts with two walks in 12-1/3 scoreless innings of seven relief appearances for Gwinnett. “This year I feel like I can go out and just play, as opposed to feeling like I have to try to do more than I really do.
“I’m using all the stuff from spring training and last year, just going out and worked on changing speeds, keeping guys off balance and attacking the zone. Just really trying to get ground balls.”
As a Braves rookie in 2011, Gearrin had a 7.85 ERA in 18 appearances, but was effective until two bad outings in his last three. He had a 3.38 ERA and .193 opponents’ average in his first 15 major league appearances, with 21 strikeouts and six walks in 16 innings.
Then he gave up six runs while recording one out at Philadelphia on July 10, and four runs (and four walks) in one inning at Colorado on July 19. He didn’t pitch again in the majors last season.
Gearrin held right-handed hitters to a .143 average (6-for-42) with 18 strikeouts and a .167 slugging percentage, but lefties hit him for a .393 average (11-for-28) with four extra-base hits and a .514 OBP.
He spent the offseason working on his changeup, to make him more effective against lefties. He also worked on changing speeds, taking some velocity off his fastball at times and get more sinking movement.
Gonzalez said Gearrin would get a chance to pitch and that it’s not a given he’ll be the pitcher sent to the minors when Hudson is activated.
“I don’t really worry about [being] up [with the major league team] or down,” Gearrin said. ” I love playing baseball. I’m here right now on this team, and I get to go out and play. If they call me and tell me you’re in, I get to go out and have fun, play the game.
“Obviously this is where you want to be. You want to be playing for this team. But whatever they need to do to keep winning.”