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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

It should only get better for Braves

Despite record in first three weeks, Atlanta's hitting hasn't yet matched its pitching

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MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

"Ol' No. 6," as Fredi Gonzalez refers to Bobby Cox, used to talk about times like this.

"When you're winning games," Cox used to say to Gonzalez, "you feel like you're never going to lose. And then when you're losing, you feel like you're never going to win one."

There was a time, quite recently, when it seemed the Braves would never lose a game. And now those same Braves have dropped four of five, their sputtering offense -- save maybe for Arizona imports Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, as well as the growing legend of rookie Evan Gattis -- finally getting the best of them.

The game is cyclical like that, which is why Gonzalez is careful not to read -- let alone read into -- the record (and, for the record, it is 13-5) this time of year.

Gonzalez does, however, have a feel for the bottom line, and he is comfortable with the equation the Braves, who get Freddie Freeman off the disabled list Monday, are currently working with.

"If we were hitting and not pitching, I would be worried," Gonzalez said. "But we're pitching and playing good defense -- or as good as you want, anyway -- and not hitting, which I think in the long run is the better. Of the two evils, I'd rather be pitching and not hitting than hitting and not pitching."

Hey, it's April 22, so let's not make too much of the fact that four guys in the Atlanta starting nine are batting under .200.

But seriously, four guys in the starting nine are batting under .200.

While you might expect some first-full-season struggles from Andrelton Simmons (.185 average, .521 OPS), the early-season strife endured by Jason Heyward (.121, .519), B.J. Upton (.167, .550) and Dan Uggla (.161, .630) is jarring and has begun to catch up to the Braves. The question is how long those issues will keep them from being the powerhouse their pitching suggests they can be.

Heyward was the runner-up for the National League Rookie of the Year Award in 2010, but he had an adjusted OPS seven percent below the league average in 2011 before recovering with last year's 27-homer, 82-RBI output. Though it's much too soon to tell if Heyward is following an on-again, off-again pattern in his career, it is worth noting that the advanced stats reveal him to be more patient at the plate this season. But his fly-ball-percentage increase from 36.7 last year to 52.2 this year is concerning in that it's accompanied by a homer-per-fly-ball rate that has dropped from 16.9 percent to 8.3. In other words, Heyward is hitting a lot more lazy fly balls, and he has the batting average to prove it.

"I feel like I just have to stay patient and get good pitches to hit," Heyward said. "Even though I do have a bad man [Justin Upton] hitting behind me, [pitchers] still don't want to make too many mistakes with me this year."

Upton has been unbelievable, hitting nine home runs in his first 78 plate appearances and living up to every notion that a change of scenery would bring out the best in his bat.

But the younger Upton is going to need more help from his big brother, who, like Heyward, does not appear to be chasing pitches out of the strike zone but is hitting an alarming number of popups. His infield fly-ball percentage is three times as high as it was last season. The change in leagues has not yet been good to B.J. Upton.

Naturally, we're looking at extremely small samples regarding B.J. Upton and Heyward. But what about Uggla, whose offensive performance has declined quite a bit since his arrival from the Marlins before the 2011 season? He hit 36 homers in his debut season with Atlanta, but that was accompanied by what was, at that point, a career-low OPS of .764. Last season, he had a .220 average, .732 OPS and 19 homers. This year, he's gone deep three times in 68 plate appearances but his slugging percentage is just .309, and the key culprit is a strikeout rate that rose in 2011 and has kept rising ever since.

The Braves' sweeping success the first couple weeks of the season (success that quite literally included a sweep of the division-rival Nationals) had a way of masking the troubles of Heyward, B.J. Upton and Uggla.

And if the Braves keep pitching the way they have this month, they'll be able to mask many issues. Tim Hudson got knocked around by the Pirates in his bid for career win No. 200 over the weekend, but Kris Medlen (2.16 ERA, 1.16 WHIP), Mike Minor (0.95, 0.84) and Paul Maholm (1.03, 0.87) have been terrific, paving the way for a bullpen that has remained dominant despite the absence of Jonny Venters.

"It's early, but we're proud of the start," Medlen said. "In our division, you're never going to feel comfortable. I know we're up a few games on the Nationals, but they are not going to go away."

The Nats have some issues of their own these days, and that's helped the Braves jump out to a three-game lead in what could be a dramatic division battle. Atlanta will be aided in its bid to maintain that lead by a healthy Freeman, and Brian McCann's return will crowd their catcher/first-base outlook (a good problem to have). But the Braves know they need to get those three struggling veterans in their lineup going.

Better to have issues with them, though, than with the starters.

"Good pitching is going to hold up the whole year," Gonzalez said. "The hitting is going to be up and down the whole year. If we were scoring 15 runs and giving up 14, we'd be worried."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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