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Braves win behind Teheran, highlight-reel defense

Simmons saves run with clutch play after righty's strong outing

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NEW YORK -- Craig Kimbrel was credited with a save that Andrelton Simmons seemingly deserved, and Julio Teheran's determined effort was backed by the small ball that the Braves played during the third inning of Wednesday night's 3-2 win over the Mets at Citi Field.

"I'm just trying to win," Simmons said. "Right now, we just need to win ballgames, however we can. We've got to grind it out right now."

Simmons displayed his determination and great athleticism with a game-saving play that likely ranks as the most clutch of the countless defensive gems he has created during his young career. The 24-year-old shortstop seemingly defied realism yet again when he robbed Travis d'Arnaud of what seemed destined to be a game-tying single with two outs in the eighth inning.

"He just continues to amaze," said Jason Heyward, who was among the many Braves who sat in the clubhouse after the game and continued to marvel at Simmons' latest defensive gem.

En route to snapping their three-game losing streak, the Braves saw Freddie Freeman further frustrate Mets pitchers with a key double that backed Teheran, who allowed just three hits over 6 1/3 innings. But the contributions of Freeman and Teheran might have gone to waste had Simmons not completed his magic.

After surrendering a Juan Lagares single that cut the Braves' lead to 1 in the eighth, right-handed reliever Jordan Walden induced a Lucas Duda double play that put Curtis Granderson on third base with two outs. d'Arnaud followed with a sharp grounder that left fielder Justin Upton seemed destined to field until Simmons ranged to his right,made a backhanded stop in the outfield grass and then ended the inning with a strong throw that beat d'Arnaud to first base in uncontested fashion.

"I thought the ball was through," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I was thinking the game was tied, what are we going to do with Walden? Maybe take him out and bring [Anthony] Varvaro in or whatever. Then all of the sudden, he makes a tremendous play."

Teheran's effort was not completely preserved until Kimbrel wiggled out of the trouble he created by allowing the ninth inning to begin with an Eric Campbell single and Matt den Dekker walk. The Braves closer stared at trouble and escaped it when Kirk Nieuwenhuis popped out to end the game.

This stress-filled conclusion seemed to be par for the course for the Braves, who had started their three-game skid after winning for the seventh time in eight games on Friday night. They sit 6 1/2 games behind the Nationals in the National League East while staying 1 1/5 games within the second NL Wild Card spot.

"Every time I go out there it is an important game for me and my team," Teheran said. "All I try to do is do my best and I know my teammates are going to do their part."

Battling some fatigue that might have been a product of the humidity he encountered during last week's start in Cincinnati, Teheran did not have his best command. But the only blemish on his line came courtesy of the solo shot that he surrendered to Wilmer Flores with two outs in the second inning. After surrendering Flores' third career homer, Teheran retired 14 of the next 15 batters he faced.

The Braves gave Teheran all the necessary support after Freeman's opposite-field double put runners at second and third with just one out in the third inning. Justin Upton followed with an RBI groundout that scored Phil Gosselin, who had reached with a bunt single. Shortstop Ruben Tejada's inability to cleanly field Evan Gattis' two-out grounder scored Freeman with an insurance run.

Gosselin's bunt and the two grounders produced by Upton and Gattis accounted for the small ball portion of the inning. But the inning was highlighted by the double recorded by Freeman, who has batted .356 (47-for-132) against the Mets since the start of the 2013 season.

Jason Heyward got the Braves rolling when he began the game with an opposite-field home run off fellow suburban Atlanta native Zack Wheeler. This was Heyward's fourth leadoff homer of the season and the second surrendered by Wheeler, who was charged with two earned runs and four hits in seven innings.

"He's got good stuff, and tonight is the best I've seen him pitch since he's been in the big leagues," Heyward said of Wheeler. "He pounded the zone for the most part. His curveball, he was able to throw it for strikes. His changeup, he was able to throw it for strikes. He's really tough when he can do that."

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Simmons continues to dazzle with latest gem at short

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Simmons continues to dazzle with latest gem at short play video for Simmons continues to dazzle with latest gem at short

NEW YORK -- When asked what he considers to be the best of Andrelton Simmons' defensive plays, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has repeatedly said, "The next one."

Through his first three seasons at the Major League level, Simmons has routinely trumped some of his gems that originally seemed impossible to top. But when accounting for both the situation and degree of difficulty, it will be quite challenging for the Braves shortstop to best what he did to end the eighth inning of Wednesday night's 3-2 win over the Mets.

"He's unbelievable, always making plays for us," Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran said. "Every time you don't think he's going to make the play, that is when he makes it."

With a runner on third and two outs in the eighth inning, d'Arnaud sent a sharp grounder through the left side of the infield. Once it escaped third baseman Phil Gosselin's reach, it seemed destined to result in a game-tying single that Justin Upton would glove in left field. But, all the while Simmons was ranging to his right.

"When it went by [Gosselin], it was just how am I going to get it over [to first base]," Simmons said. "That was the fastest way I could think of right there."

With momentum pulling him toward the right field line, Simmons backhanded the ball in the outfield grass and then hopped off his left leg. As he was in the air, he managed to rocket an accurate throw that first baseman Freddie Freeman scooped to record the out in uncontested fashion.

"As soon as the ball gets in my glove, I'm looking for him," Simmons said. "So as soon as I get in the air I got him locked in. If I don't, then I'm in trouble because I'm throwing into space and hoping it falls in the right spot. … I knew it was on target, I was just hoping it didn't take a bad or weird hop."

d'Arnaud was not necessarily shocked by the incredible development. One inning earlier, Simmons had backhanded one of his grounders in the infield dirt before making a throw to first base to record the out.

"When he made the play, I saw in the dugout that he was out and I said, 'I'd like to go out and challenge it as best I can, but I know he's out so all I'm doing is delaying the game a little bit,'" Mets manager Terry Collins said.

Simmons won his first Gold Glove Award last year and he entered Wednesday having compiled a Major League-high 62 Defensive Runs Saved since the start of the 2013 season. No other shortstop had more than 25.

Simmons' greatness has led many to compare him to the great Ozzie Smith, who played alongside Braves first-base coach and former third baseman Terry Pendleton for many years in St. Louis.

Pendleton said arm strength is the one thing that would have prevented Smith from matching what Simmons did on Wednesday night.

"If they are playing in the same spot, yes Ozzie Smith could get to that ball," Pendleton said. "But Ozzie might not have been able to throw the ball. He'd have gotten to the ball, but I don't know if he'd have been able to throw it because he played from 1985 until the day he retired with a torn rotator cuff. It's safe to say he would have gotten to the ball, but I don't know if he'd have had the arm strength to do what the kid did."

It would have been difficult for any shortstop to match Simmons' latest gem. But Gonzalez is certainly not ready to make any guarantee that this latest will indeed remain the greatest.

"How many times have we said that and there is another one?" Gonzalez said. "Maybe this one wasn't as graceful as some of the others. But the situation with two outs and the tying run at third … I'll stick to my guns with that one. There will be something else that we'll sit here and talk about because he's a special guy."

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Johnson gets break amid hitting woes

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Johnson gets break amid hitting woes play video for Johnson gets break amid hitting woes

NEW YORK -- Mired in a slump that has extended nearly three full weeks, Chris Johnson had no problem with the fact that he was not in Wednesday night's starting lineup. The unselfish Braves third baseman came to Citi Field well aware of the fact that he had previously struggled against Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler.

"I have no problem with that," Johnson said. "If I'm not going good against a starting pitcher out there or I'm struggling or whatever, whatever we have to do. I just want to win."

Given that he had notched two hits in 17 previous at-bats against Wheeler, Johnson knew the odds of breaking out of his funk on Wednesday were not favorable. But as September approaches, he remains hopeful that he will produce a strong finish to a season that obviously been much more trying than his surprising 2013 season.

Johnson exceeded all expectations when he batted .321 -- the National League's second-best mark -- with a .358 on-base percentage and .457 slugging percentage last year. These numbers trumped the career averages -- .276/.315/.430 -- he had carried into the season.

But as Johnson has progressed through his second season with the Braves, he has produced numbers much more similar to those career marks he had produced from 2009-2012. He entered Wednesday hitting .271 with a .296 OBP. His disappointing OBP is a product of the alarming strikeout ratios that he has produced while trying to hit for more power this season.

Although he has attempted to generate more power, Johnson has produced a career-low .375 slugging percentage.

"I've been trying to work on pulling the ball a little bit more and kind of driving balls a little more this year," Johnson said. "I think that has gotten me into pulling off some balls and getting first-pitch strikes and fouling balls off because I'm trying to do too much. Last year, I would just take my hits.

"I just never really got big [with my swing] last year. I want to find that happy medium for my game. I think I've got power. I just have to learn how to do what I'm really good at and use that power."

After striking out in just 21.2 percent of his plate appearances last year, Johnson has been retired via strikes in 26.1 percent of the time this year. Once again, this year's number is closer to the 24.7 percent that he produced from 2009-12.

As Johnson's strikeout total has risen to an already career-high 136, his walk rate has decreased from 5.3 percent to 3.3 percent this year. His 30.7 plate appearances/walk ratio stands as the NL's highest.

"There is only one stat that has absolutely killed me, and it's the strikeouts," Johnson said. "I'm a firm believer that if you put the ball in play you have a better opportunity to get hits. I've just struck out too much. It's something I've got to figure out."

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Bats held in check as Braves edged by Mets

'Real streaky' club hits into four double plays to drop four out of six

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Bats held in check as Braves edged by Mets play video for Bats held in check as Braves edged by Mets

NEW YORK -- Though they might have already buried themselves too deep to overcome their deficit in the National League East race, the Braves know they could easily claim a National League Wild Card spot if they manage to produce an extended stretch of success -- something that has eluded them for nearly two months.

Since notching a season-best nine-game winning streak that concluded on July 6, the Braves have lost 19 of the 44 games that have followed. They have also managed to go 51-57 since winning 17 of this season's first 24 games.

So, maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the Braves have now lost four of six since notching a five-game winning streak exactly one week after snapping an eight-game losing streak. Their latest setback occurred on Tuesday night when another frustration-filled night for the offense resulted in a 3-2 loss to the Mets at Citi Field.

"We're real streaky," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "We either get on a roll or we get on a roll the other way. It's something we've been trying to figure out all year."

Johnson accounted for two of the four double plays that hindered the Braves' bid to overcome the decisive two-run home run Juan Lagares hit off Alex Wood in the fourth inning. Wood minimized the damage to three runs as he shook off some rust during the early innings and ended up allowing just five hits over seven innings.

But Lagares' fourth home run of the season forced Wood to deal with yet another hard-luck loss. The Braves have won just twice during the current six-start stretch within which Wood has produced a 2.23 ERA.

"You can take positives and negatives from anything," Wood said. "But at the end of the day, we're only here for one reason, and that's to win as many games down the stretch as we can. When you lose when you go out there, you can't help but take responsibility because you're the guy with the ball in his hand."

While Wood continues questioning why he threw a 3-2 changeup when he knew Lagares was going to be aggressive, he certainly bore just a small percentage of the blame for the Braves, who sit 7 1/2 games behind the Nationals in the NL East and within 1 1/2 games of grabbing the second Wild Card spot.

"We've just got to keep playing," Justin Upton said. "Results are results. There's nothing we can do about that. We just need to continue to play better. We need to continue to play better baseball and try not to get too far ahead of ourselves."

Though the offense as a whole has continued to be inconsistent of late, Upton has impressed as he has batted .417 with a 1.213 OPS over the past nine games. He opened this three-game set with a three-hit performance that provided Wood some support.

Upton teamed with Freddie Freeman to notch consecutive two-out doubles in the fourth inning. He also singled to begin the seventh inning and scored on a Tommy La Stella single that followed Evan Gattis grounding into a double play.

Those two runs accounted for all that was allowed by Dillon Gee, who completed 6 2/3 innings. Gee had allowed four earned runs or more in five of his previous seven outings.

Johnson grounded into his first double play of the night after Upton walked to begin the second inning. The Braves third baseman, who has grounded into a team-high 20 double plays, also hit into a double play after Upton singled to begin the ninth against Jenrry Mejia.

Before tallying a pair of runs through Tuesday's first seven innings, the Braves had not scored more than one run through the first eight innings of any of their previous three contests.

"We had chances," Johnson said. "It's part of the game. When you put the ball in play, sometimes you hit it right at them and they turn double plays. Sometimes, you pick bad times to hit ground balls. I got a couple of sinkers down and they were good pitches. That's kind of what happens when you swing at those … you get ground balls and I'm not a speed demon."

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Venters shut down; Shae's return on hold

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NEW YORK -- While Shae Simmons still hopes to eventually rejoin Atlanta's bullpen this season, Jonny Venters has been forced to at least temporarily halt his bid to return from a second Tommy John surgery.

After Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez announced Tuesday afternoon that Venters' rehab program was being shut down, general manager Frank Wren indicated that the club still believes Simmons simply needs rest to overcome the shoulder discomfort that put him on the disabled list after his July 24 appearance.

Simmons was bidding to join Atlanta's bullpen last week. But after he did not record an out in his second rehab appearance for Triple-A Gwinnett, the rookie reliever was shut down again.

Wren said he did not believe the Braves medical staff believed there was any reason for Simmons to undergo an MRI exam.

"They just think it's a little tender and not quite ready yet, but nothing major," Wren said.

Thoughts of Venters potentially serving as a reliable bullpen piece this year seemed to fade as he spent the past month battling elbow discomfort. But it was not until Tuesday that the Braves essentially ended any lingering hope that Venters might at least experience a feel-good moment by pitching in at least one game this year.

While in Pittsburgh last week, Venters cut one of his bullpen sessions short. After he experienced more elbow discomfort while playing catch in Cincinnati this past weekend, the Braves decided to send him to see Dr. James Andrews, who performed the elbow surgery on Venters in 2005 and again last year.

"Maybe the second time around, it just takes a little longer," Gonzalez said. "I told him to just keep plugging away."

After making 230 appearances -- one shy of the Major League-leading total -- from 2010-2012, Venters underwent his second Tommy John surgery and missed all of the '13 season. Despite understanding the comeback odds that were stacked against Venters, the Braves still took the commendable route by giving the veteran left-handed reliever a one-year, $1.63 million deal that matched his salary from the previous season.

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Seven Braves prospects set to compete in AFL

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Seven Braves prospects set to compete in AFL play video for Seven Braves prospects set to compete in AFL

NEW YORK -- Kyle Wren, Edward Salcedo and Aaron Northcraft headline the list of seven Braves prospects who will compete in this year's Arizona Fall League. They will be part of the Peoria Javelinas club that will employ Triple-A Gwinnett's Garey Ingram as its hitting coach.

Jose Peraza has established himself as Atlanta's most intriguing prospect this season and he was a candidate to play in the AFL. But the speedy infielder is instead expected to spend this winter playing in his native Venezuela, where he can be part of a longer season and compile more plate appearances.

Wren has batted .282 with a .699 OPS over 128 combined games for Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi this year. The speedy outfielder, who is the son of Atlanta general manager Frank Wren, has been successful with 44 of 58 stolen-base attempts.

Once heralded as a top prospect, Salcedo has struggled at the plate and provided reason to wonder where he would fit from a defensive perspective. The 23-year-old former shortstop has spent most of the past two months playing the outfield. He entered Tuesday hitting .211 with 10 homers and a .655 OPS for Triple-A Gwinnett.

Northcraft opened some eyes when he posted a 2.88 ERA in 13 appearances (12 starts) for Mississippi this year. But since being promoted to Gwinnett, the 24-year-old right-hander has posted a 6.23 ERA in 12 appearances (11 starts).

The other Braves prospects scheduled to play in the AFL include infielder Daniel Castro and right-handed pitchers Brandon Cunniff, Nate Hyatt and Ryne Harper.

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Braves lose replay challenge in fourth inning vs. Mets

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Braves lose replay challenge in fourth inning vs. Mets play video for Braves lose replay challenge in fourth inning vs. Mets

NEW YORK -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez gambled and lost when he challenged a close play at second base during the fourth inning of Tuesday night's game against the Mets at Citi Field.

Gonzalez requested a review after Travis d'Arnaud doubled to begin the bottom of the fourth inning against Alex Wood. The Braves skipper took a chance that d'Arnaud had lost contact with the second-base bag as he slid head first while attempting to avoid the tag Tommy La Stella applied after receiving Justin Upton's throw from second base.

Replays showed that d'Arnaud's right hand did come off the bag. But it was not clear whether his legs were off the bag at the same moment. Thus after a review that lasted two minutes and 39 seconds, the umpires revealed that call stood.

Juan Lagares followed with a two-run home run that gave the Mets a 3-1 lead.

The Braves have been successful with 19 of the 28 replay reviews they have requested.

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Bethancourt collects three hits with Triple-A Gwinnett

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Bethancourt collects three hits with Triple-A Gwinnett play video for Bethancourt collects three hits with Triple-A Gwinnett

Catcher Christian Bethancourt returned to Triple-A Gwinnett's lineup Monday after spending a week on the disabled list due to a bruised left hand he suffered when he was hit by a foul tip. Tuesday, the Braves' No. 3 prospect collected three hits and homered to lead Gwinnett to a 7-1 victory against Durham.

Bethancourt, ranked No. 80 on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list, finished the night 3-for-5 with two runs and two RBIs. His home run was his eighth of the season and third in the last three weeks.

Center fielder Todd Cunningham, the Braves' No. 18 prospect, went 2-for-3 with two runs, two walks and a stolen base.

In 86 games with Gwinnett this season, Bethancourt is hitting .273/.296/.404. He also spent a few weeks in the Major Leagues, serving as the Braves catcher while Evan Gattis was on the disabled list in July. He hit .240/.283/.260 in 13 games.

Bethancourt is expected to return to Atlanta when the Minor League season ends and Major League rosters expand next week.

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Onus on Braves to rise up for stretch run

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Onus on Braves to rise up for stretch run play video for Onus on Braves to rise up for stretch run

ATLANTA -- Given the fact that they're less than three weeks removed from an eight-game losing streak, the Braves are obviously in a better state than they were earlier this month. But as they prepare to enter the final week of August, they still have not provided a clear picture of what September might bring.

With that being said, the Braves are also just three years removed from proving that it does not necessarily matter how much optimism you carry into September. More important is the level of optimism created as the regular season's final four weeks unfold.

In order to overcome this year's flurry of disappointments, the Braves will need to end this season much differently than they did in 2011, when they squandered a 9 1/2-game National League Wild Card lead that they had owned as late as Aug. 25. They currently sit eight games behind the Nationals in the NL East race. While its hopes of defending the division crown might now be bordering on the unrealistic, Atlanta is just one game behind the Giants in the battle to secure the NL's second and final Wild Card berth.

The Braves are also just three games behind the Cardinals, who own the NL Wild Card lead. But it should be remembered that Atlanta does not own the tiebreaker against St. Louis or San Francisco.

Here are some storylines to follow as the Braves attempt to secure a postseason berth:

Is Atlanta pointed in the right direction?
The Braves have gone 10-7 since their eight-game losing streak and 7-3 since losing a home series to the Dodgers two weeks ago. It seemed like they were headed in the right direction when they won their fifth straight game on Tuesday. But then they stumbled through the final two innings of a three-game series in Pittsburgh, and then saw their maddening lineup go silent yet again during most of this past weekend in Cincinnati.

The Braves scored in just six of the final 30 innings played against the Reds, who had produced a 6.17 ERA in the process of losing nine of their past 10 entering Friday. With back-to-back losses on Saturday and Sunday, Atlanta lost a prime opportunity to escape the path of mediocrity it has followed while going 51-56 dating back to April 29. During this 107-game span, the Braves have averaged 3.81 runs, which ranks 11th in the NL.

Will Upton continue to be a significant influence?
While some have questioned whether Justin Upton is making himself a legit NL MVP Award candidate (1.029 OPS in his past 24 games since July 30), Jason Heyward is the most valuable player the Braves put on the field on a daily basis because of his offensive/defensive mix. With that being said, Upton has been as influential as any Atlanta player from an offensive perspective since the start of last year.

J-Up makes braves go
Streak Record BA/HR/OPS
4/1/13-4/18/13 13-2 .328/9/1.256
7/26/13-8/16/13 18-2 .392/7/1.234
3/31/14-4/27/14 17-7 .330/7/1.031
6/27/14-7/5/14 9-0 .273/1/.799

Minus that nine-game winning streak earlier this year, the Braves' best streaks have coincided with Upton's. As he went hitless during the final two days in Cincinnati, Atlanta's offense totaled three runs, two of which scored during Sunday's ninth inning. If the Braves are going to finish this season strong, they might need Upton to end it much like he started the past two.

Is Minor truly back?
Hours after the non-waiver Trade Deadline passed, it was revealed that the Braves had been shopping B.J. Upton. Unless you are of the opinion that "the sun came up" is newsworthy on daily basis, this obviously did not merit any surprise. But a disturbing side note to this rumor came from the fact that the Braves were thinking about using Mike Minor to be the piece that would lure teams to agree to what would have been a bad-contract-for-bad-contract deal.

This has certainly not been a season to remember for Minor, whose troubles began when an internal procedure pushed him a month behind schedule entering Spring Training. But since getting a chance to clear his head as his start was skipped during this month's first week, he has produced three strong outings and looked like the dependable lefty he was from July 2012 through the end of last year.

There's no doubt the Braves would like to part ways the approximately $50 million still owed B.J. Upton through the end of 2017. But to have done so at the expense of Minor would have likely drawn ire for many years to come.

Will this be a September to remember for Fredi?
This has been a challenging season to say the least for manager Fredi Gonzalez, who bid adieu to two starting pitchers (Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy) in Spring Training and entered this season with the task of placing Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton back in his lineup for a second straight year. While the plug was pulled on Uggla after the All-Star break, Gonzalez still had to deal with the consequences of having the frustrated and disgruntled veteran stay within his clubhouse for two months after being benched in early May.

While the consequences of the Upton deal will likely need to be addressed during the offseason, Gonzalez does at least have the benefit of occasionally playing Emilio Bonifacio in center field. The skipper has said he would likely shy away from using Phil Gosselin in left field unless he's forced to do so. But Gosselin has been taking fly balls in the outfield during batting practice, and he made a late-inning appearance there in Thursday's blowout win in Cincinnati.

Given what happened three years ago, Gonzalez might be more apt to pull the trigger on the decision to place Gosselin in left field, move Justin Upton to the right and use Heyward as his center fielder. Or maybe he will continue showing patience with the hope that B.J. Upton suddenly erupts like he did at the end of the 2012 season, when he convinced the Braves to give him a franchise-record contract.

Whatever happens, these next few weeks are shaping up to be quite interesting for the Braves.

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Graham offers Braves options in role on mound

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Graham offers Braves options in role on mound play video for Graham offers Braves options in role on mound

Livermore (Calif.) High School graduate J.R. Graham was his team's MVP in his senior year. He hit .418 with 20 RBIs. After winning a host of local and state awards, Graham chose to attend Santa Clara University, where he was a two-way player, pitching and playing infield and outfield for the Broncos in his three years there. He showed enough velocity to pitch wherever needed, starting and even closing during his tenure at the Jesuit university. In his junior year in 2011, Graham averaged only 0.68 walks per nine innings.

After Graham graduated from Livermore, the Oakland Athletics liked him enough to select him in the 46th round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft. But it was the fourth-round selection by the Atlanta Braves in 2011 that convinced him to become a professional pitcher.

The right-handed-pitching Graham is 24 years old and is No. 11 on the Braves' Top 20 Prospects list.

Graham does not fit the recent trend of bigger-than-life physical pitchers. In fact, he's 6 feet and he weighs just 195 pounds. Graham's strong arm is really a surprise. He has little difficulty reaching the mid-90s on his fastball and can hit 100 mph upon occasion.

Graham pitched for the Braves' Rookie-level Danville club in the Appalachian League to begin his career. He threw 57 2/3 innings, starting eight of the 13 games in which he appeared. Graham had a very fine 1.72 ERA and a WHIP of 1.13.

The following year, Graham pitched at both Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Double-A Mississippi. He had a great campaign once again, pitching exclusively as a starter and throwing 148 combined innings. Graham finished the year with a 2.80 ERA and a record of 12-2. He was named Atlanta's Organizational Pitcher of the Year.

Things changed a bit for Graham in 2013. A shoulder strain shut him down from mid-May until the end of the year.

This season, Graham has returned to Double-A Mississippi. Showing he had recovered from his shoulder woes, he had an ERA of 1.86 in five April starts. Graham was selected to the Southern League All-Star Game, where I saw him pitch this past July in Chattanooga, Tenn. He threw two-thirds of an inning, yielding a run on two hits. Graham gave up a home run to Scott Schebler of the Dodgers' organization.

While injury risk still lingers with any pitcher that has been shut down with shoulder issues, Graham did not require surgery during his time on the disabled list in 2013. When I saw him, he was throwing free and easy. Graham has a very reliable slider in the mid-80s, and an improving changeup accompanies his sinking fastball to form a repertoire that serves him well. He can use those pitches as part of the rotation or the bullpen. Graham pounds the lower portion of the strike zone, inducing enough ground balls to get out of trouble if needed.

Graham has pitched with good command and control as a professional in the Braves' organization. Mirroring his low collegiate walk rate, Graham has been able to keep his walk rate below three per nine innings for most of his Minor League career. If there is any real hiccup that may cause concern, it comes when he misses with his pitches and gets the ball up in the zone or hangs a slider. Graham can get hit hard at times. He can also escape trouble quickly by throwing his late-breaking sinker.

Graham's ability to keep hitters off balance with his fastball-slider combination is a factor that could hasten his advancement to the big leagues. Mature and confident on the mound, he has the ability to retain the same arm angle and repeat his delivery consistently from pitch to pitch. This year, left-handed batters are really scuffling against Graham's offerings, hitting only .226. Conversely, righties are hitting at a .306 clip.

Given Graham's sharp command and good control, and his experience in multiple pitching roles, Atlanta has the luxury of being able to use his high-powered fastball and secondary pitches as a starter or reliever, depending upon the team's needs.

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Harang falters in fourth during loss to Reds

Righty makes mental mistake in frame; ninth-inning rally falls short

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Harang falters in fourth during loss to Reds play video for Harang falters in fourth during loss to Reds

CINCINNATI -- Aaron Harang pinned this loss on himself.

The veteran right-hander made a critical mental mistake by not covering first base on a ball hit down the first-base line in what became a three-run fourth inning for the Reds as Cincinnati beat the Braves, 5-3, in the series finale on Sunday at Great American Ball Park. Trailing by two after scoring two runs in the ninth, Atlanta loaded the bases, but Justin Upton grounded into a fielder's choice to end the game.

With the Nationals' win over the Giants, the Braves find themselves a season-high eight games behind Washington in the National League East while remaining one game behind San Francisco for the second NL Wild Card spot.

Harang was cruising until the fourth, when Todd Frazier and Brandon Phillips opened the frame with back-to-back singles. Following a lineout to left by Devin Mesoraco, Jay Bruce hit a sharp bouncer down the first-base line that Freddie Freeman grabbed and looked to toss to the bag, but no one was at first to take the throw.

The next batter, Ryan Ludwick, hit a sinking liner to right that was caught on a dive by Jason Heyward, but Frazier tagged and scored.

The next two batters, Brayan Pena and Zack Cozart, hit RBI singles to make it 3-0.

"It's something as small as covering first, which I've done thousands of times in my career, and the one time you don't do it, things come unraveled," said Harang, who pitched for the Reds from 2003-10 and lost to his former club for the first time in five starts. "I thought when Jay hit that ball, the way Freddie was going after it, I just assumed it was foul, so I kind of broke down. And by the time I get started again, I'm not going to beat him to first.

"I take the blame for the whole thing, because if I cover first like I routinely do, the next guy flies out to right, the inning's over and no runs score."

Harang got into another bases-loaded jam in the sixth. David Carpenter came on in relief and got Cozart to ground to third, but Atlanta couldn't complete the 5-4-3 double play and Bruce scored to make it 4-0.

Cincinnati tacked on another run in the seventh on a Todd Frazier home run to left off reliever David Hale.

The Braves didn't go quietly, though.

Atlanta got on the board on back-to-back doubles by Evan Gattis and Tommy La Stella against Reds starter Alfredo Simon in the seventh. They also scored two more in the ninth on a solo homer by Gattis off Reds reliever Logan Ondrusek and an RBI single by Jason Heyward off Jonathan Broxton.

But Braves hitters squandered other chances, such as in the eighth, when Atlanta put two runners on with nobody out to start the inning but came away empty handed. Freeman grounded into a fielder's choice, and the next two batters, Upton and Chris Johnson, struck out against Cincinnati reliever Jumbo Diaz.

With two outs in the ninth and the Reds clinging to a 5-3 advantage, the Braves got the tying run to the plate in Phil Gosselin. Broxton helped Atlanta's cause by walking both Gosselin and Freeman to load the bases and place the tying run at second, but Upton couldn't deliver.

The Braves went 2-for-10 with runners in scoring position on Sunday, and in the final three games of the series, combined to go 3-for-22 in that situation. They left 10 runners on base on Sunday and stranded 38 over the four-game series.

"That's just baseball, man," La Stella said. "It's one of those things where you can't pick and choose, unfortunately, when you're going to have your knocks. Ideally, you'd like to have them all come with runners in scoring position, but all you can do is put together a good at-bat and get good wood on it, and whatever happens, happens."

"We put up a good fight and we had the right guys at the plate at the right time," Freeman said. "We've been good; you can't really get on us, we fought all game, put up nine, 10 hits and had a lot of opportunities. It was just one of those days, and in the last inning we just didn't get the big hit. We're not going to win every game, but we gave a good fight today."

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez was pleased with the fight his club showed even though he wasn't pleased with the outcome.

"I feel like we didn't lose the game," he said. "I feel like we just ran out of outs."

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Gosselin, La Stella learning together in Majors

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Gosselin, La Stella learning together in Majors play video for Gosselin, La Stella learning together in Majors

CINCINNATI -- On April 27, 2010, Phil Gosselin hit a grand slam to help the University of Virginia beat Coastal Carolina University, 6-3. Little did he know that the second baseman he passed while rounding the bases, red-shirt sophomore Tommy La Stella, would be a teammate of his with the Braves four years later.

Though Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez has said he isn't platooning the two at second base, Gosselin and La Stella are both getting playing time at the position since being called up from Triple-A Gwinnett earlier this season. La Stella was brought up on May 28, making his Major League debut the same day. Gosselin was recalled on July 26 after playing in four games for Atlanta in 2013.

Both were in the starting lineup for Sunday's series finale against the Reds at Great American Ball Park because Gonzalez gave everyday shortstop Andrelton Simmons a day off. Gosselin started at short and La Stella started at second.

Both have performed well for the Braves: La Stella entered Sunday batting .270 with 13 doubles, 28 RBIs and 31 walks in 259 at-bats, while Gosselin was batting .286 in 42 at-bats, hitting his first Major League home run on Aug. 15 against the A's.

With both players in similar stages of their career, getting adjusted to life in the Majors and sharing the same position much of the time, La Stella and Gosselin seek advice from one another on a regular basis.

"Phil and I are great friends, first and foremost," La Stella said. "I've played with him for a few years now and he's a great player as well. Obviously we've shared some time in the Minor Leagues and now splitting time in the big leagues, and we bounce stuff off each other. I respect his opinion and he respects mine."

Though they played against each other in college, the two met for the first time while with the Braves' Double-A affiliate in Mississippi last year.

"We talk a lot about the pitchers we're going to face that day and what he's seen in the past since he's been here a little bit longer, that kind of thing," Gosselin said of his interaction with La Stella. "He's a really knowledgeable guy and I definitely bounce some things off him and he does the same with me. It's nice to have someone like that."

Though a scenario in which two young players are getting time at the same position can be competitive, with each trying to earn a lion's share of the playing time, Gosselin and La Stella understand they're contributing in a way that's best for the club.

"We kind of know it's flip flopping back and forth a little bit, but we've got to be ready to go every day and be ready to help the team any way we can," Gosselin said. "It's nice to know that you've got a good relationship in that situation."

Both players have proven valuable so far as the Braves seek a return to the postseason.

"It's awesome," La Stella said of having the chance to contribute in a pennant race right away. "We stepped into a situation on a team full of veteran guys, and it's good for us because we can kind of go out and do our thing; we're not expected to carry the workload and there are plenty of guys on this team that are capable of doing that. Hopefully we can make a playoff push and get in there."

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Walden checks in with injured friend Richards

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Walden checks in with injured friend Richards play video for Walden checks in with injured friend Richards

CINCINNATI -- After Angels right-hander Garrett Richards' left knee buckled beneath him as he ran to cover first base on Wednesday against the Red Sox, causing him to be carted off the field in a stretcher, he received a text message from a good friend who happens to be a big league pitcher himself.

"I texted him right after I saw him go down," Braves reliever Jordan Walden said. "He just told me what happened and that he was going to have surgery. I'm actually waiting on another text back from him right now."

Walden was waiting to hear from Richards prior to Saturday's game against the Reds because Richards had undergone surgery to repair a torn left patella tendon on Friday in Orange, Calif. He is expected to need six to nine months for recovery.

"It's tough to see the ace of a pitching staff go down, especially when they're in the race," Walden said. "To see him go down with a knee injury is really scary, but Garrett is a hard worker and I think he'll recover from it and come back even stronger."

Both Walden and Richards were drafted by the Angels -- Walden in 2006 and Richards in '09 -- and met while in the club's farm system.

"We lived together a long time in the Minor Leagues," Walden said. "He went to the University of Oklahoma and we have a lot of mutual friends in Texas, so we always hang out. We've just been buddies forever, and he's in my wedding this offseason."

Walden is confident that Richards will be better than ever when he gets back on the mound.

"One, he's young," Walden said. "Two, he's got one of the best arms in the big leagues. And his arm didn't get hurt, so he's still going to have the 100 mph fastball. He's never going to lose that. It's just a little bump in the road for him. He'll bounce back fine."

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Braves miss out on chance to gain in Wild Card

Santana goes seven strong innings, but Atlanta blanked by Reds

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Braves miss out on chance to gain in Wild Card play video for Braves miss out on chance to gain in Wild Card

CINCINNATI -- The Braves got another great performance from a starting pitcher on Saturday night at Great American Ball Park. But unlike Friday, when Mike Minor's 7 2/3 innings of one-hit ball didn't go for naught thanks to Justin Upton's go-ahead homer in the 12th, there was no such backing for Ervin Santana.

The right-hander allowed one run on four hits over seven strong innings, but his counterpart and fellow righty Mike Leake silenced Atlanta's bats as the Braves fell, 1-0, to the Reds following a 1-hour, 56-minute rain delay.

With the Nationals' victory over the Giants, the Braves dropped to seven games behind Washington in the National League East and remained one game behind San Francisco for the second NL Wild Card spot.

In a scoreless pitching duel, Santana blinked first. He yielded a leadoff double to Leake in the sixth and the next batter, Billy Hamilton, dropped a sacrifice bunt to move Leake to third. Santana struck out the following hitter, Skip Schumaker, but with a full count on Brandon Phillips, he gave up an RBI single to left-center that put Cincinnati up, 1-0.

"I tried to locate it a little bit down and away," Santana said of the 95 mph four-seam fastball he threw to Phillips. "But it ran back toward the middle. Sometimes you get lucky and sometimes not."

As luck would have it on this night, that mistake would result in a loss for Santana despite his stellar performance; he walked one and struck out seven overall. The loss was Santana's first since the All-Star break. He is 6-1 with a 2.75 ERA in eight second-half starts after going 7-6 with a 4.01 ERA in the first half.

"In a situation like that, anything can happen. [Leake] was dealing and I was dealing," Santana said. "It was one shot, and that was it."

The Braves had their best shot in the seventh, when Andrelton Simmons opened the frame with a leadoff double past the diving Todd Frazier at third base and down the left-field line.

But Atlanta couldn't bring Simmons around to tie the game. The next two batters were the Braves' hottest as of late, but both Freddie Freeman and Upton struck out swinging. Following back-to-back walks that chased Leake from the game, reliever Jumbo Diaz got Tommy La Stella to hit a sharp one-hopper to short, which Zack Cozart gloved and tossed to second for a forceout to end the threat.

"We didn't support Ervin very much, but he went out and gave us seven strong innings, and you can't ask for much more than that," said Upton, who had his 13-game hitting streak snapped after he went 0-for-4.

"It's a shame that we couldn't get [Santana] the win, because he's pitched terrific," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "You figure we could scratch one run across and not have him get the loss, but their back end of the bullpen is pretty good, with [Jonathan] Broxton and, of course, [Aroldis] Chapman."

The Braves managed to get a baserunner to second against Broxton in the eighth on a two-out double by Emilio Bonifacio, but the right-hander fanned Simmons to end the inning.

In the ninth, Chapman overpowered the middle of Atlanta's lineup, striking out Freeman, Upton and Chris Johnson en route to his 27th save.

"When you get the ball to Chapman [it's tough], and that's their goal: to get the ball to the back end of their bullpen, just like it is for us," Upton said. "The roles could have been reversed if we had scored a run. That's the name of the game, to get the ball to your shutdown guy."

The roles might have been reversed had the Braves been able to continue the run of offensive production they enjoyed over the seven games prior to Friday's. Atlanta won six of those, batting .277 and averaging 6.1 runs per contest over that span. But in the last two games, the Braves scored three runs combined, batted .189 and went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position.

On Saturday, it meant a hard-luck loss for Santana. But in the defeat, his performance and the trend it continued for the Braves' starting rotation was perhaps the only silver lining. Over the last nine games, Atlanta starters are 6-1 with a 2.39 ERA.

"We just have to keep it up," Santana said of the rotation. "We have a good team. We just have to keep it up."

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Fredi has checklist for handling no-hitters

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CINCINNATI -- Left-hander Mike Minor flirted with a no-hitter in Friday's 3-1, 12-inning Braves victory over the Reds. He gave up a two-out, game-tying single to Billy Hamilton in the eighth for Cincinnati's first hit, and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez then brought Jordan Walden in from the bullpen.

But had Minor not given up the bloop hit to center, how much further would Gonzalez have let him go in a 1-0 game?

"There are three things you check off the checklist," Gonzalez said. "There's injury -- how far do you let him go before he's getting in a position where he could hurt himself? Then you try to win the game for the team; and then you try to get a no-hitter for the young man. I think that's the order you try to do.

"The interesting [scenario] would have been if he walked Hamilton. Now it's first and second and you've got Todd Frazier. To this moment, I don't know what the answer is. I could say, 'Yeah, I would have let him pitch,' or, 'No, I would have taken him out.' But I can honestly say, 'I don't know.'"

Hamilton's single came on Minor's 107th pitch of the night, a figure he had exceeded several times earlier in the season.

"If he would've gone 107 pitches into the ninth [not having allowed a hit], I would have let him go back out there, and [Craig] Kimbrel would have been ready to go," Gonzalez said.

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Braves win in 12th after Minor flirts with no-no

Lefty allows first hit with two outs in eighth; J. Upton hits go-ahead HR

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Braves win in 12th after Minor flirts with no-no play video for Braves win in 12th after Minor flirts with no-no

CINCINNATI -- Mike Minor's resurgence continued in a flirtation with history on Friday night in Cincinnati.

The left-hander tossed 7 2/3 no-hit innings before yielding a game-tying single to Billy Hamilton, but a two-run homer by Justin Upton in the 12th lifted the Braves to a 3-1 win over the Reds at Great American Ball Park.

The victory was Atlanta's seventh in eight games and moved the Braves to six games behind the Nationals in the National League East after Washington lost to San Francisco. Atlanta remained one game behind the Giants for the second NL Wild Card spot.

With Atlanta leading, 1-0, in the eighth, Minor walked Zack Cozart with one out, issuing his fourth free pass of the game. Pinch-hitter Chris Heisey followed with a slow ground ball to third that Chris Johnson scooped and threw to first for the second out, but Cozart moved to second and scored on Hamilton's flare up the middle.

Hamilton was Minor's last hitter of the night, but the 26-year-old left-hander became the first opposing pitcher to take a no-hitter into the eighth inning at Great American Ball Park.

"I'd say it was probably the fourth inning when I noticed no hits up there," Minor said. "But my main concern was the 1-0 game; that's what contributed to the walks -- kind of pitching around guys … because I feel like we need to win every game right now."

Minor gave way to reliever Jordan Walden, who ended the inning on a groundout by Todd Frazier that Johnson made a diving play on to prevent the go-ahead run from scoring.

After having a scheduled start skipped earlier this month, Minor has been sensational. In three outings since then, he's posted a 2.53 ERA. In his 10 prior starts, he had a 7.33 ERA. His decline came after a breakout season in 2013 in which he posted a career-best 3.21 ERA and a start to the 2014 campaign that included a 3.07 ERA through his first seven outings.

Minor credited a change in mindset for his recent turnaround, as well as some help from rotation mate Ervin Santana, whom he solicited for tips on how to grip the ball on certain pitches. He practiced using the new grips while throwing bullpen sessions following his skipped start, and they've produced more movement on his two-seam fastball and his slider.

Minor's adjustment to the mental side of his game was aided by a talk he had with manager Fredi Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell.

"It was kind of, 'Let's start fresh right here and finish the season strong,'" Minor said of that conversation.

"I kind of threw away everything and kind of went out there like my old self last year. I don't think about my previous starts -- I think that's what I was doing earlier in the year. I was kind of leaning on those starts and hoping I didn't repeat that, and kept on going all year, one bad start after the other."

Minor's outing Friday was his longest since July 21, 2013, against the White Sox, when he went eight innings. He allowed one hit in a start for the first time since Sept. 5, 2012, against the Rockies.

"His command was outstanding and he had stuff that was electric," Gonzalez said. "He's carrying that momentum, and you can see the confidence building by every start, every pitch."

The player responsible for ensuring that Minor's brilliant effort didn't go to waste is on quite a tear at the plate. Upton's home run was his 25th of the season, and he went 3-for-6 with a triple to extend his hitting streak to 13 games. He's batting .413 with five homers and 20 RBIs over that span.

"[Manny Parra] made a very good pitch on me the first pitch -- a fastball down," Upton said of his 12th-inning at-bat. "The next pitch was an offspeed pitch up in the zone that stayed up for me."

Atlanta's only scoring before the 12th came on a Tommy La Stella fielder's choice ground ball with the bases loaded in the second, scoring Freddie Freeman to make it 1-0.

Atlanta's bullpen was excellent after Minor left the game, tossing 4 1/3 scoreless frames. Reliever David Hale came on in the 11th and escaped a two-on, one-out jam to preserve the tie. Hale also earned the win.

Craig Kimbrel came on in the bottom of the 12th and picked up his 38th save, tying him with Milwaukee's Francisco Rodriguez for the NL lead.

Atlanta managed to win despite going 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position and leaving 13 runners on base.

But the Braves will take the win.

"We fought," Upton said. "We weathered two innings from [Reds closer Aroldis Chapman] and the back end of their bullpen, and we put ourselves in a position to win, and we finally got it done."

Getting it done is what matters as September approaches, and Atlanta is in the thick of a pennant race. With an offense that has seen a recent rejuvenation to go along with the rejuvenation of a key piece in their rotation in Minor, the Braves are excited for what lies ahead over the final five weeks of the regular season.

"It's great. It's a time that you need it," Minor said of how the Braves persevered on Friday. "Early in the year, you need those games, but it always comes down to the end where everybody's scratching and clawing to try and get those wins.

"And we're all clicking right now -- offense, defense, you name it. So it's coming at a good time."

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Russell benefits from not being lefty specialist

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CINCINNATI -- Left-handed reliever James Russell struggled in his first few outings after being acquired by the Braves in a July 31 trade with the Cubs, seeing his ERA on the season balloon from 3.51 to 3.93 in the process.

But that's when Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to stop using Russell as a specialist against left-handed hitters -- entering Friday, lefties are batting .303 against him this season, while righties are hitting .104.

Gonzalez has been using Russell not only for more than one batter, but for more than one inning in some cases. Russell has responded well, and it's been a boon for the bullpen.

"He's already thrown two multi-inning games," Gonzalez said before Friday's game against the Reds. "And that gives us more confidence that we can use him there; you don't have to go that 1-1-1 [with a different pitcher for each batter], and you can give your bullpen a rest. It took me five appearances to figure it out."

Since Gonzalez made the change in how he utilizes Russell, the left-hander has tossed 6 1/3 scoreless innings over five games, including two innings in each of his previous two appearances.

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Braves focused on themselves, not other clubs

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CINCINNATI -- The Braves have been playing well as of late, entering Friday's game against the Reds having won six of seven. But while they were doing that, the team they're chasing in the National League East, the Nationals, was busy winning 10 straight games.

Atlanta is chasing the Nationals, but the club is also in the hunt for an NL Wild Card spot.

The Braves entered Friday seven games behind the Nats in the NL East and one game behind the Giants for the second Wild Card spot.

Do the Braves do a lot of scoreboard watching these days?

"You can't watch it," said shortstop Andrelton Simmons. "It doesn't matter what other teams do; you've gotta win your own games and focus on yourself. And that's what I think we've been doing. Every once in a while you'll look back and try to see where you're at, but there's nothing you can do about it. You just play your game and at the end of the season, see where you're at."

First baseman Freddie Freeman echoed Simmons.

"You've got to worry about yourself," Freeman said. "You've got to go out there and keep winning ballgames, because if you don't win ballgames, it doesn't really matter what the other teams are doing. So you've just got to put that away and go out there and play good baseball."

With MLB Network on television screens in the clubhouse and results of games virtually ubiquitous in today's multimedia environment, not being bombarded with what other teams are doing -- especially in the case of a dramatic 10-game winning streak by the Nationals that included five walk-off wins -- can be difficult. But that doesn't appear to be fazing Atlanta.

"Obviously you know what's going on," Freeman said. "You've got to overtake who you've got to beat to get into the playoffs, but you can't go out from 7-10 p.m. and watch the scoreboard, because if you're not winning, it doesn't really matter at that point."

"I try not to look at [television highlights] too much," Simmons said. "We're at the field almost half the day. I try to look at the funny stuff or the good plays, but I don't really watch the scores that much."

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Rout keeps streaking Braves on pace in race

Five-run third backs strong outing from Teheran vs. reeling Reds

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CINCINNATI -- In their loss to the Pirates on Wednesday, the Braves were unable to score more than two runs for the first time since a 4-2 loss to the Dodgers on Aug. 12.

But following Wednesday's hiccup, Atlanta's bats were booming again in Thursday's series opener with the Reds, backing a strong outing by Julio Teheran with a five-run third inning en route to an 8-0 victory at Great American Ball Park.

The victory was the Braves' sixth in seven games and kept them seven games behind the Nationals in the National League East. With the Giants beating the Cubs, Atlanta's win has them one game behind San Francisco for the second NL Wild Card spot.

Over the last seven games, Atlanta's offense has been hot, averaging 6.1 runs per contest and fueling six wins. Prior to that, the Braves had lost 12 of 15, averaging 2.7 runs per game over that span. More on the recent hot streak:

• The Braves are batting .277 over the last seven games. On the season, they're batting .246.

• With their five-run third inning Thursday, Atlanta has had an inning of five or more runs in three of the last four games.

Justin Upton, who extended his hitting streak to 12 games Thursday and drove in three runs, is batting .400 (16-for-40) over that span with four home runs and 17 RBIs. He's turned in multi-hit efforts in four of his last five games.

Jason Heyward was 2-for-4 with an RBI on Thursday. Since moving back to the leadoff spot in the batting order on Aug. 13, Heyward is batting .324.

• Rookie Phil Gosselin, who has started six of the last nine games, was 2-for-5 with his first career double Thursday. Since Aug. 13, he's batting .321 (9-for-28) with six runs scored.

Andrelton Simmons opened the scoring Thursday by hammering his seventh homer of the season into the left-field seats off Cincinnati starter David Holmberg in the second, giving the Braves a 1-0 lead. Simmons continued a career trend of hitting well against the Reds:

He's batting .364 (16-for-44) in his career against Cincinnati, with four homers. In four games at Great American Ball Park, Simmons is batting .500 (9-for-18) with two doubles, three homers and six RBIs.

"I definitely feel hot whenever I'm playing here, but I've also been feeling pretty comfortable overall lately, and especially today I felt pretty good," Simmons said.

The floodgates opened up for the Braves in the third. Heyward led off with a bloop single to left, which was originally ruled a catch on a dive by Reds left fielder Skip Schumaker. Following a challenge from Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, the call was overturned and Heyward was ruled safe at first.

Gosselin followed with a bunt single and Freddie Freeman walked. Upton then hit a two-run single to score Heyward and Gosselin.

"That's what we've got to do to score runs," Upton said. "We've got to put guys on, move guys around and see if we can plate a few of them. I'm just trying to get one run at a time; if we can plate one of those runs [in that situation], we're in good shape."

The next batter, Chris Johnson, stroked an RBI double off the wall in left-center to make it 4-0.

Evan Gattis followed with a sacrifice fly to right. After a Simmons flyout, a walk to B.J. Upton and Teheran being hit by a pitch, Heyward drew a bases-loaded walk to make it 6-0.

The Braves tacked on a run in the fourth on a fielder's-choice ground ball by Simmons, and another in the fifth on a Justin Upton sacrifice fly to extend their advantage to 8-0.

"You know what [Justin] is doing? He's taking advantage of situations," Gonzalez said. "He came up with second and third, and instead of trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark, he put the ball in play and made a productive out with a sac-fly. He's done that a few times on this road trip and he's keeping within himself. And that's a good sign."

Teheran, meanwhile, cruised through six innings, allowing four hits while walking none, striking out three and hitting a batter. He was lifted after six because he was battling the Cincinnati humidity and Gonzalez didn't want to take any chances. The right-hander also had to deal with a good problem: sitting in the dugout for some long half-innings while his offense put up crooked numbers.

"It was difficult," Teheran said. "I was trying to stay warm, stay loose and I was just trying to stretch and make sure the long innings didn't affect me. I was trying to battle with the humidity; sometimes you don't make pitches because the ball slides out of your hand."

Following a rough first two starts in August, in which he posted a 7.43 ERA (11 earned runs in 13 1/3 innings pitched), Teheran has strung together two excellent outings in a row, posting a 1.50 ERA since (two earned runs in 12 innings pitched).

But he also had great run support, something Atlanta is seeing more of recently, and something the club knows will be indispensable if the Braves are to return to the postseason.

"It's definitely something we're capable of," Simmons said. "It's not going to show up every day, but it's good to see. It's good to see our offense is coming back to life."

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Wood eager to push past hard-luck losses

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Wood eager to push past hard-luck losses play video for Wood eager to push past hard-luck losses

CINCINNATI -- Left-hander Alex Wood had to settle for a no-decision in Wednesday night's 3-2 Braves loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh, despite allowing two runs over seven-plus innings. Six of the 23-year-old's nine losses this season have come in starts in which he allowed two earned runs or fewer, and Wednesday's no-decision was his second this season when allowing no more than two earned runs.

Wood threw seven scoreless innings before issuing a walk to Gaby Sanchez and allowing a Travis Snider ground-rule double to open the eighth. With the Braves leading, 2-0, right-hander Jordan Walden came on in relief and got the next batter, Chris Stewart, to ground out to first. Sanchez scored on the play and Walden threw a wild pitch to the following batter, Neil Walker, enabling Snider to score the tying run.

Pittsburgh won in the ninth on a walk-off sacrifice fly by Sanchez against right-hander David Carpenter.

Entering Thursday, Wood's run support of 2.94 runs per start was the second lowest in the Majors, behind only Padres left-hander Eric Stults (2.76).

"He's been nails," manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Wood before Thursday's series opener with the Reds at Great American Ball Park. "I don't believe in wins and losses for a pitcher. He's been terrific. I talked to him a little bit today, and he goes, 'Skipper, I want the ball in the eighth inning. I want to be that elite-type pitcher in the Major Leagues,' and I think it was a good learning experience for him.

"Two starts prior to [Wednesday's], we pushed him to 124 pitches [against the Nationals on Aug. 10]. But he wants that; he's got that mentality to be a top-tier pitcher in the Major Leagues, and to be in that category, you've got to go out and go eight innings, go complete games. And he wants to do it. And that's more than half the battle, for me."

Wood's eagerness to improve despite tough-luck results like Wednesday's was evident Thursday.

"He was here at 12:30 today, taking care of his body and preparing for his next start," Gonzalez said. "You don't see that from a young pitcher. Usually those habits come a little bit later from a veteran guy. But he's had that from Day 1 in the Major Leagues.

"And we forget that he was pitching Double-A ball last year."

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Braves win challenge on catch in outfield

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CINCINNATI -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez successfully challenged a play on a shallow fly ball to left field in the top of the third inning of the Braves' series opener against the Reds at Great American Ball Park Thursday night.

With the Braves leading 1-0, Jason Heyward led off the frame by hitting the looper into short left, where Skip Schumaker charged and made a diving attempt to catch it. The play was initially ruled a catch by third-base umpire Jeff Nelson.

The call was overturned upon replay evidence that the ball was trapped by Schumaker and Heyward was ruled safe at first with a single.

Heyward eventually came around to score on a two-run single by Justin Upton.

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Braves unable to hold early lead, fall in ninth

J. Upton's ninth-inning error proves costly as win streak ends

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PITTSBURGH -- After watching Alex Wood position them for a sixth straight victory, the Braves played two innings that might have been uglier than most of those experienced while they were in the midst of a three-week tailspin that ended late last week.

Jordan Walden bounced a wild pitch during a game-tying two-run eighth and the Upton brothers nearly collided on what proved to be the key play in the ninth inning. By the time Gaby Sanchez gave the Pirates a 3-2 win with his game-ending sacrifice fly on Wednesday night, the Braves found themselves wondering which of their late-inning blunders actually proved to be the most fatal.

"It's a game we should have had. Woody pitched his [butt] off," David Carpenter said. "You couldn't ask for anything more. We needed a few things to go our way there and they didn't."

Though the box score credited him with the loss, Carpenter was essentially a rather innocent bystander, whose most egregious mistake was allowing Jordy Mercer to begin the ninth with a soft single. Andrew McCutchen then popped out before Starling Marte produced what appeared to be the second out until Justin Upton's attempt to get out of B.J. Upton's way led to the ball bouncing out of his glove.

Suddenly, the Pirates, who had been held scoreless and to three hits during the first seven innings, had runners at second and third with one out in the ninth.

"B.J. is playing the gap and I'm playing straight up and there was a huge gap," Justin Upton said. "We covered some ground. We just couldn't get there. ... I saw [B.J.]. There was nothing we could do. That ball was literally right between where both of us could get to it. It was just perfect placement."

When Sanchez followed with his sacrifice fly to deep center field, the Braves found themselves dealing with the imperfect conclusion to a night that turned in a hurry. Along with bidding adieu to their five-game winning streak, the Braves fell seven games behind the division-leading Nationals, who have won nine straight games. Maybe the Braves should have known this night was doomed when they lost a half-game in the Wild Card standing because the Giants became the first team to have a protest upheld since 1986. By the end of the night, the Giants sat 1 1/2 games in front of the Braves in the battle for the second Wild Card entry.

"We can't stop," Justin Upton said. "Games like this are going to happen. We've just got to keep our heads up and keep going."

Wood, who has a 1.89 ERA in his past five starts, certainly had no reason to be ashamed about the effort he made while matching up against Gerrit Cole. The 23-year-old southpaw exited the seventh having retired 16 of the previous 17 hitters he had faced.

With his pitch count at 90, Wood said he still felt fresh. But he got himself into immediate trouble when he opened the eighth by issuing Sanchez a five-pitch walk. He then threw two curveballs to gain an 0-2 count against left-hander Travis Snider. His decision to throw a third straight hook proved unwise when Snider turned on the hanger and painted the right-field line with a ground-rule double.

"If you want to go deep in games and be one of the best in the league, that can't happen in the eighth inning," Wood said. "It's inexcusable and it stinks. ... One minute you're carving them up, going along nice and then all of the sudden, you go back out there for the eighth and you hang a breaking ball and it's a whole new ballgame. Those things can't happen at this level."

Walden entered with two on and promptly allowed Sanchez to score on a Chris Stewart groundout. The setup man's bid to keep the tying run on base died as he threw three consecutive sliders to left-handed pinch-hitter Neil Walker. The first was a strike and the second was blocked by Evan Gattis. The third bounced in front of the plate leaving Gattis essentially defenseless as Snider scored the tying run.

"You hate to end a game like this because there was a lot of good stuff," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "The wild pitch, I don't think Gattis ... he blocked the [heck] out of the one before that. The other one that got away, that was a tough block."

Once the ugly conclusion was complete, the Braves were not thinking about the fact that Jason Heyward had tallied two more runs from the leadoff spot or that Justin Upton had extended his hitting streak to 11 games with a first-inning RBI single off Cole.

Instead, they could not overlook that they had literally let one slip away.

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{"content":["injury" ] }

With discomfort in shoulder, S. Simmons given rest

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PITTSBURGH -- When this week began, the Braves thought Shae Simmons might be just a few days away from rejoining Atlanta's bullpen. But they are now simply hoping Simmons eventually overcomes the right shoulder ailment that has forced him to be shut down again.

Instead of making his third scheduled rehab start for Triple-A Gwinnett on Wednesday, Simmons was experiencing the rest that was prescribed when he informed members of the Braves' medical staff that he was once again feeling some discomfort in the back of his right shoulder.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said Simmons will likely be examined by one of the team's doctors within the next couple days.

Simmons has been sidelined with a right shoulder strain since July 24. The ailment did not seem to plague him as he needed just 10 pitches to complete a perfect inning in his first rehab appearance on Saturday. But when he took the mound again on Monday for Gwinnett, he allowed four runs and totaled 24 pitches without recording an out.

"He came in today sore from the other night, so they shut him down," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said on Wednesday. "We'll let that thing calm down a little bit and then we'll see where he's at."

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Uptons help support Jackie Robinson West team

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Uptons help support Jackie Robinson West team play video for Uptons help support Jackie Robinson West team

PITTSBURGH -- Along with being among the many who have participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, B.J. Upton and Justin Upton can take pride in the fact that they are part of the group of Major Leaguers who have allowed many of the members of the Jackie Robinson West team to be joined by their parents at the Little League World Series.

With LaTroy Hawkins serving as the organizer, the Upton brothers agreed to make monetary donations that allowed some of these parents to travel from their inner-city Chicago homes to see their sons play in Williamsport, Pa. The Jackie Robinson West Club will play either Philadelphia or Las Vegas on Thursday night for the right to continue fighting to serve as the Unites States entrant in Sunday's championship game.

"I know for Justin and I, it was a no-brainer, so we [donated]," B.J. Upton said. "We're definitely rooting for them. The Little League World Series is always fun to watch. But when you feel a connection to a team, it definitely makes it more interesting."

Before Wednesday night's game against the Pirates, the Upton brothers accepted the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge issued to them by Florida State head football coach Jimbo Fisher's sons Trey and Ethan.

"It's become kind of a big thing and everybody knows ALS is a terrible disease," Justin Upton said. "Being able to be a part of it and to raise awareness for ALS research, 'Heck yeah, I'm in.'"

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{"event":["prospect" ] }

Braves consider next steps for Bethancourt, Peraza

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Braves consider next steps for Bethancourt, Peraza play video for Braves consider next steps for Bethancourt, Peraza

PITTSBURGH -- Though they were both placed on the disabled list this week, Christian Bethancourt and Jose Peraza stand among the candidates who will be evaluated as the Braves decide who to add to their expanded roster in September. But Bethancourt is the only member of this duo who should assume he will be spending the next month at the Major League level battling for a postseason berth.

If Andrelton Simmons' previously-sprained left ankle had forced him to the disabled list last week, the Braves would have at least debated whether Peraza would have been their best option to handle the shortstop position for a couple weeks. But if his primary September role would simply be to serve as a pinch-hitter, the club might be reluctant to add the highly-regarded 20-year-old prospect to their roster.

Peraza was placed on Double-A Mississippi's seven-day disabled list with a left groin strain. While the Braves are hoping that he returns to action soon, they certainly are not going to take any risks with the young infielder with the gifted legs.

"We will be cautious with Peraza and make sure he is ready before we do anything," Braves assistant general manager Bruce Manno said.

Peraza has combined to hit .341 with a .366 on-base percentage and .430 slugging percentage in 108 games with Class A Advanced Lynchburg and Mississippi this year. He has been successful with 60 of his 75 stolen-base attempts.

While Peraza has the potential to soon become Atlanta's second baseman and leadoff hitter, it is too early to know whether he will be deemed ready for the start of the 2015 season. He has played 42 games and totaled 188 plate appearances above the Class A level.

Bethancourt, who is on Triple-A Gwinnett's seven-day DL with a bruised left hand, will almost certainly be with Atlanta at the beginning of next year. The success he had while handling the catching duties for the first few weeks of July increased reason to believe the Braves should try to trade Evan Gattis to an American League club this winter.

{"event":["prospect" ] }
{"content":["replay" ] }

Braves have mixed results in challenges vs. Bucs

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PITTSBURGH -- Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez gained a potentially important out when he successfully challenged Angel Hernandez's call on a pickoff move during the first inning of Wednesday's game against the Pirates at PNC Park.

But he also lost another challenge as he attempted to take advantage of the collision rule aimed to protect catchers.

Gonzalez's unsuccessful challenge came after Freddie Freeman proved unsuccessful in his attempt to be the second runner to score on Chris Johnson's sixth-inning single. Chris Stewart clearly applied the tag before Freeman reached the plate. But Gonzalez challenged that Stewart illegally blocked the plate.

A review that lasted just 34 seconds upheld the original ruling and denied Gonzalez's attempt to add another run through a technicality of this collision rule.

Earlier in the game after Hernandez ruled that Josh Harrison got back to second base on Alex Wood's pickoff attempt, Gonzalez requested the play to be reviewed. During a review that lasted one minute and 39 seconds, the umpires determined that Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons applied the tag before Harrison's outstretched right arm touched the bag.

The overturned call provided the Braves their 13th pickoff of the season and erased the potential damage of Harrison's leadoff double.

Gonzalez has been successful with 17 of 25 challenges this year.

{"content":["replay" ] }
{"content":["replay" ] }

Braves roll to fifth straight win with rout of Bucs

Harang pitches into ninth inning; J-Up leads charge with five RBIs

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Braves roll to fifth straight win with rout of Bucs play video for Braves roll to fifth straight win with rout of Bucs

PITTSBURGH -- As the suddenly vibrant and rejuvenated Braves have rolled through their competition over the past few days, it's hard to imagine that this is the same group that appeared lethargic and destined for doom last week.

But with Jason Heyward providing a spark in the leadoff role and Justin Upton in the midst of one of his patented hot streaks, the Braves now find themselves blazing through a impressive stretch that was extended with Tuesday night's 11-3 thrashing of the Pirates at PNC Park.

"It's nice to string together a few nice games and be at ease and have some fun again," said Heyward, who drove in three runs as the Braves notched their first streak of at least five games since July 5 while distancing themselves from their recent miseries.

When the Braves lost for the 12th time in a span of 15 games on Thursday, it was impossible to ignore the negative energy that was floating around the clubhouse. But five days and five wins later, they are back to the jovial bunch that had no problem having some fun at the expense of Chris Johnson, who went hitless in five at-bats and stood as the only member of the starting lineup who did not record a hit on Tuesday.

"Not throwing CJ under the bus, but [Gerald] Laird was saying somebody had to keep the game going," Heyward said with a smile.

Though they have not made up any ground on the red-hot Nationals, who have won eight straight games, the Braves have kept themselves in the thick of the postseason chase. The Braves are now tied with the Giants for the second National League Wild Card spot after San Francisco was topped by Chicago, 2-0, in a rain-shortened game at Wrigley Field on Tuesday.

As they were on their way to tallying seven runs in back-to-back games for just the second time this year, the Braves benefited from a number of offensive contributors -- including Aaron Harang, who finished two outs short of a complete game and also generated the game's first run with what was his fourth hit of the season and first RBI since 2012.

"As we profiled them, they've got guys capable of doing damage," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's been a quick-strike offense. They've gone on stretches where they hit good pitching. But like any team, they can be pitched to. We haven't located the ball where have needed to, on numerous occasions."

Harang's two-out single in the second inning sparked the uprising. But most of the production was fueled by the red-hot bat of Upton, who highlighted his season-best, five-RBI performance with a three-run third-inning home run off Francisco Liriano. Upton's broken-bat single also accounted for a pair of runs during the five-run fifth that chased Liriano, who had not allowed more than three runs in any of his 10 most recent starts.

"We were positive throughout our struggles," Upton said. "We know how crazy the game of baseball is. Baseball can drive you nuts, and you can have some great times too. We've just got to continue to try to stay positive and try to ride it out."

Upton is batting .313 with six home runs and a 1.082 OPS in his past 19 games, a surge that's reminiscent of the ones he's produced in the past when he has essentially put the Braves on his back. The often underappreciated outfielder stands with Alex Rodriguez, Adrian Beltre, Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera as the only active players who have notched 1,000 hits and 500 RBIs before their 27th birthday.

"He gets hot and he can carry us," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He can do that for a few months. It's nice to have that big bat right behind Freddie Freeman, who is starting to roll the pole a little bit."

Given a four-run lead by the time he took the mound for the third inning, Harang did not experience much stress during his 114-pitch effort, which ended with three consecutive one-out hits that led to a run in the ninth. His efficient outing allowed the Braves to limit their bullpen work to the seven pitches thrown by David Hale.

When the Braves were still struggling last week, Harang said the club was capable of doing what he and his 2002 A's teammates did when they broke off a 20-game winning streak and went from 4 1/2 games back on Aug. 12 to 3 1/2 games ahead on Sept. 4.

"Everybody is swinging well," Harang said. "We're taking advantage of any kind of miscues. The guys are up there being aggressive and hitting the ball hard. We just got to look at it one game at a time."

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Gattis wows teammates with monster blast

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PITTSBURGH -- Evan Gattis has caused a number of jaws to drop while displaying his incredible raw power during batting practice the past couple of years. But as evidenced during Tuesday night's 11-3 win over the Pirates at PNC Park, the strong Braves catcher has also occasionally displayed his incredible pop in the midst of a game.

Gattis' monstrous home run off Brandon Cumpton to begin the ninth inning will be one that Braves players and fans will remember for many years. The towering blast hit a quarter of the way up the facade of the circular walkway located behind the left-field foul pole.

"That was a joke," outfielder Justin Upton said. "He hammered that one."

Jason Heyward, who has watched Gattis tally 40 home runs through the first 718 plate appearances of his career, also marveled at the formidable power that was displayed after Cumpton made the ill-fated mistake of hanging a slider to a 6-foot-4, 260-pound beast.

"That was fun to see," Heyward said. "You know what kind of pop he has. That was one of those you didn't know when it was going to come down or where. You know he's got the pop, but it always amazes you when he gets a hold of one."

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Fredi turning to bench players more regularly

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Fredi turning to bench players more regularly play video for Fredi turning to bench players more regularly

PITTSBURGH -- As he has seen his pinch-hitters prove to be significantly less productive than last year, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has shouldered some of the blame, saying that he has not has gotten his bench players the consistent playing time necessary to remain prepared for pinch-hit opportunities.

Some of this has had to do with the limited defensive talents possessed by Ryan Doumit, whose attempt to serve as the Braves' primary pinch-hitter has only highlighted the fact that his skill set is likely best served in the American League.

But while Doumit provides limited defensive versatility, Gonzalez has gained more flexibility over the past month with the additions of two talented utility men -- Emilio Bonifacio and Phil Gosselin, both of whom have found themselves in the starting lineup more often than the average backup since their arrival.

In fact, Gosselin has seemingly knocked Tommy La Stella out of his role as the club's everyday second baseman. Including Tuesday night's game against the Pirates, Gosselin has started three of the past four contests at second base.

"I'm looking to get Gosselin involved somehow, someway in a game, and the same thing with [Bonifacio]," Gonzalez said. "If there is a situation where you can double-switch and leave him in a game, you feel like he could do a decent job."

Bonifacio has started nine of the 16 games the Braves have played since he was acquired from the Cubs on July 31. Four of those starts have come in center field, and three others were made at shortstop while Andrelton Simmons was dealing with a left ankle sprain.

While some fans have clamored for Bonifacio to be used as the primary center fielder, Gonzalez has provided every indication that he plans to continue utilizing B.J. Upton in that role. After batting .185 with a .587 OPS last year, Upton entered Tuesday hitting .207 with a .606 OPS in 116 games this season.

"You keep running him out there, you see the good at-bats and the good attitude -- he's not defeated," Gonzalez said. "So you stay in his corner and keep plugging away."

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Braves ride loud opening act past Pirates

Back-to-back HRs from Heyward, Simmons spark six-run first

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Braves ride loud opening act past Pirates play video for Braves ride loud opening act past Pirates

PITTSBURGH -- Given the tremendous struggles they had experienced before sweeping the A's this past weekend, there was not much reason to believe the Braves would experience a letdown. But if there were any concerns, they were likely erased during a six-run first inning that proved decisive in Monday night's 7-3 win over the Pirates at PNC Park.

After Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons opened the game with back-to-back home runs, Ervin Santana battled through 5 1/3 innings that proved much more challenging than expected after he was given a six-run advantage before throwing a pitch. But the three solo home runs surrendered by Santana were not enough to defeat the Braves, who have won four straight games since exiting last week's Dodgers series with 12 losses in their previous 15 games.

"This is good," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "This is a carryover of the last five or six days where we've been playing good baseball. Hopefully, the season is full of ebbs and flows. Hopefully, we're on top of one and we can ride it out a little bit."

With their sudden surge, the Braves have stayed within striking distance of the first-place Nationals in the National League East. Along with attempting to defend their division title, the Braves are also now just one game back in the battle for the NL's second Wild Card spot.

"It's good to keep this streak going at the moment and good to win the first game of a series," said Heyward, who has seen the Braves go 5-1 since he moved back to the leadoff role.

Heyward and Simmons became the fifth duo in Braves history to open a game with consecutive home runs. More importantly, they created the spark that led the Braves to put five guys on base before Vance Worley recorded his first out. Worley surrendered hits to five of the first six batters and found himself staring at a six-run deficit when a pair of runs scored on a Santana grounder that would have been an inning-ending double play had Neil Walker not made an errant throw.

This certainly did not look like the Worley who produced a 2.32 ERA in the previous 10 starts he made for the Pirates. Instead, he looked more like when he last faced the Braves on May 22, 2013. Pitching for the Twins that day at Turner Field, he allowed eight earned runs in 3 2/3 innings and exited during a five-run fourth inning.

"I was throwing east-west, missing, staying flat," Worley said. "After that, I figured it out, and I was able to drive the ball down in the zone and get the results I needed."

Instead of adding to their comfortable early advantage, the Braves allowed Worley to settle into a groove, holding them scoreless over the remainder of his six-inning stint. Meanwhile, Santana had no answers for Starling Marte, who accounted for two of the three homers that allowed the Pirates to keep things interesting.

Along with going deep in both the second and fourth innings, Marte also doubled to begin the sixth inning. When Travis Snider followed with a double of his own, it looked like the Pirates might cut into their three-run deficit. But after Santana ended his night with a strikeout of Brent Morel, Luis Avilan entered and got Ike Davis to line into an inning-ending double play.

Given that he lacked a feel for his slider and struggled to keep his fastball down, Santana had reason to feel fortunate about allowing just the three earned runs while surrendering nine hits over 5 1/3 innings. The third-inning solo shot he surrendered to Neil Walker was the first home run to enter the Allegheny River this year.

"I didn't have my stuff today, but for me it was one of my best games because I gave up three runs," Santana said. "When you don't have your best stuff and you only give up three runs, that's huge. Three solo homers, that doesn't hurt."

Heyward provided some cushion with a sacrifice fly in the eighth inning. But it was his third leadoff homer of the season that got things rolling for the Braves, who received RBI singles from Chris Johnson and Gerald Laird during Worley's 36-pitch first inning.

"I think it was just one of those nights," Heyward said. "I looked at the pitch I hit out and it wasn't a bad pitch. We just kind of ran into some barrels. We had some good swings and we went up there confident. Once one guy saw it, we were like, 'OK, let's go up there and get something to hit,' and we didn't miss."

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