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MLB.com Columnist

Mike Bauman

Best has yet to come for Braves

Atlanta in first despite myriad of injuries, road-heavy schedule, slumping B.J. Upton

Best has yet to come for Braves play video for Best has yet to come for Braves

ATLANTA -- The Braves' current 23-18 record is an understatement. Given their 2013 circumstances, they can be better than this over time.

Not that they're in crisis mode right now. The Braves are in first place in the National League East, while much of the world has conceded championships of every sort to the division rival Nationals.

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Two factors make Atlanta's 23-18 first-quarter work look more like a promising beginning than a true level. It was not until Friday night, in the 41st game of the season, that the Braves were able to put their preferred lineup on the field, all of their hoped-for starters playing together for the first time this season.

And, in one of those scheduling oddities that cannot be completely explained but must be experienced, the Braves had played the vast majority of their early-season games on the road.

You might think that Georgia would be a better climate bet for April and May baseball, compared to northern cities where snow and sub-freezing temperatures have been commonplace in what we optimistically call spring. But coming into this weekend, the Braves ranked last in the Major Leagues in this one category: home games.

With the Friday night game, the Braves had played 15 games at home and 26 on the road. A crowd of 43,238 welcomed them at Turner Field. At home and relatively healthy, the Braves triumphed over the Los Angeles Dodgers, 8-5.

Right fielder Jason Heyward made the lineup complete with his return from an appendectomy.

"I'm happy to be playing the game I love again, with a group of teammates I love," Heyward said.

Heyward had a double, a single and a walk and scored twice, so the affection was undoubtedly reciprocated.

The game turned on a grand slam of epic proportions from left fielder Justin Upton, who is playing at an All-Star-plus level. Upton's homer in the sixth turned a 4-2 deficit into a 6-4 lead. There were arguments about how far this gargantuan ball traveled, but it was somewhere beyond 450 feet, headed in the general direction of Chattanooga.

The Braves have a nice left-right dynamic in their lineup now, and a feeling of genuine optimism to go with that dynamic.

"We can get on a roll," said Friday night's starting and winning pitcher, Paul Maholm. "We have the everyday lineup out there now. One through eight, we can hurt you."

Well, one through seven, anyway. As much as Justin Upton is tearing up North America, his brother, center fielder B.J. Upton, is mired in a slump (.141 batting average, .235 on-base percentage, .237 slugging percentage). As manager Fredi Gonzalez noted Friday, the Braves never envisioned a situation in which B.J. Upton would be hitting eighth. And they don't believe he'll be there for a great length of time. For the Braves, his re-emergence as a productive hitter remains a question of when, not if.

Now the Braves, coming off a difficult road trip, also get to believe -- with considerable justification -- that the worst is over.

"Whoever survives the injuries are the ones who are going to be there at the end," Gonzalez said. "I think we've survived it; I'm sure there's many more injuries to come, but we had key personnel out. I think [Freddie] Freeman was out for 15, [Brian] McCann, 30-something games he was out, and Jason we missed him for 15.

"And you're still there, not playing your best baseball yet. I still believe we have that ahead of us. Going on the road, look at the teams we played on the road, just off the top of your head, they're all winning their division, second in the division, with a better record than [us], and we come back home and you're still in first place and you feel like you still haven't played your best baseball."

"All that said, yes, we feel pretty good," Gonzalez said with a smile. "All that being said, we feel pretty fortunate with where we're at. I'm not trying to convince myself, am I?"

The facts don't require a hard sell in this case. The Braves have played 63.4 percent of their games on the road. And they have played considerable stretches of the early season without some of their most important personnel. It's not hard to see that even in first place, their overall direction should be upward.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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