ATLANTA -- Braves third baseman Chris Johnson could not have known the dominant outing Marlins starter Nathan Eovaldi was settling into when the Braves third baseman took a pair of fastballs on the outer half for called strikes and expressed his displeasure with home-plate umpire Jim Joyce after striking out on the next pitch.
The National League batting leader made an early exit on Saturday night when he was ejected in the first inning of a 1-0 loss to the Marlins for arguing balls and strikes with Joyce. His quick temper ultimately came around to sting the Braves, who could have used his .337 batting average over the final eight innings.
"It was just the whole at-bat. I thought maybe there were some pitches in that at-bat that weren't strikes, in a big situation, I thought," Johnson said. "Obviously we didn't have that situation come up much this game off a really good pitcher."
Johnson struck out with runners on first and second to end the inning after looking at three straight fastballs for strikes from Eovaldi, tossing his bat and spiking his helmet as he left the batter's box with a few heated words for Joyce. After he was ejected, Johnson turned back to move toward Joyce before first-base coach Terry Pendleton was able to coax him back into the dugout while manager Fredi Gonzalez took up the argument.
It appeared that Johnson's vocal disagreement with the strike zone continued from the dugout, even as rain began to fall more steadily to send the game into a delay.
"I didn't feel like I said enough [to be ejected]," Johnson said. "I obviously knew that I threw my helmet down. He let me know that it was an equipment fine, but then he thought there should be a little bit more."
The helmet slam has gotten Johnson in trouble before. He was ejected on May 22 of last year, when he was a member of the Astros, for slamming his helmet while arguing a close call at first base.
"It's hard, the guy who's leading the league in hitting to get thrown out of the game, but you can't control your temper sometimes," Gonzalez said. "It's competitiveness, and he's been probably the No. 1 competitive guy we have on our club. Right there and then, he thought that the strikes that were called were balls."
Johnson's career year at the plate has brought with it a noticeable improvement in his strikeout rate. After striking out in close to 25 percent of his plate appearances in each of his first four years in the big leagues, Johnson has dropped that rate to 21 percent in 2013.
His 80 strikeouts are the fifth most on the Braves, behind Dan Uggla, Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Freddie Freeman. Saturday night marked just the 11th called third strike Johnson has taken in 380 plate appearances this season, another marked improvement from his career ratio of strikeouts looking. His departure from the game left the rudderless Atlanta offense with even less firepower, as the Braves finished with just three hits, only one of which came off Eovaldi.
"We could've had 12 hits, and I would've been like, 'Man, I want to be up,'" Johnson said. "Every time my spot came up, I was like, 'Man, I'm hitting right here.' Looking back, I should've just taken it and wore it and just chalked it up to one of those things where it didn't work out for me very well."
Paul Janish replaced Johnson at third base, making a pair of sharp defensive plays in the fourth inning to keep starter Alex Wood's excellent outing rolling and bring the crowd to life. But Janish, who entered the game 0-for-5 at the plate this season, came up empty in his three at-bats, capped off by a game-ending strikeout of his own with the tying run on first base in the bottom of the ninth.
"It always works out that way," Johnson said. "Of course. Why wouldn't he come up? But hey, Janish is my guy. I was in here rooting as hard as anybody for him to get a hit or hit a double or hit one out of here. We have a lot of confidence in Janish, too, so I don't want to say that if I were hitting there, I would've done anything special. [Marlins closer Steve] Cishek's pretty good."
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.