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Hot-hitting Johnson could play full-time at third

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PITTSBURGH -- Chris Johnson has established himself as one of Major League Baseball's hottest hitters while spending most of the past two weeks playing first base in place of the injured Freddie Freeman. His success has put him in position to serve as the Braves regular third baseman when Freeman makes his expected return to Atlanta's lineup on Monday.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez entered this season planning to platoon Johnson and Juan Francisco at third base. But Johnson, who entered Saturday with a National League-best .412 batting average, could soon start getting most of the playing time at third base.

"We'll see," Gonzalez said. "Chris sure has made a case for himself to play every day. So, we'll see."

One of the concerns about utilizing a strict platoon with Francisco and Johnson centered around the fact Johnson would get most of the at-bats against left-handed pitchers. He entered this season hitting .255 with a .667 OPS against left-handers and .323 with a .775 OPS against right-handers.

But Johnson has altered this unusual trend through this season's first three weeks. He has hit .387 (12-for-31) with a .908 OPS against right-handed pitchers and .450 (9-for-20) with two home runs and a 1.226 OPS against southpaws.

Francisco has also gotten off to a good start, hitting .318 with three home runs and an .871 OPS entering Saturday. Concerns about his ability to hit left-handed pitchers have remained the same as he has recorded one hit in just eight at-bats against southpaws.

But even though Francisco possesses the greater power potential, it would be hard for the Braves to remove their most consistent hitter from the lineup. Johnson has hit .533 (16-for-30) in his past seven games.

The Braves entered this season hoping the additions of two right-handed hitters -- B.J. Upton and Justin Upton -- would allow them to avoid the struggles they experienced against left-handed pitchers last year. But with B.J. Upton getting off to a slow start, they entered Saturday hitting .208 against southpaws and .273 against right-handed pitchers.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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