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BRAVES NOTEBOOK: Voting for final NL All-Star spot ends today at 4 p.m. as Freeman leads Puig; ex-Brave Rocker creates stir again

Freddie Freeman may be headed to the All-Star Game if his NL vote lead holds up through today at 4 p.m.

Freddie Freeman may be headed to the All-Star Game if his NL vote lead holds up through today at 4 p.m.

Ex-Brave Rocker makes more controversial remarks, this time about steroids

Former major-league pitcher John Rocker says baseball is more interesting to watch when the players are using steroids.

Rocker acknowledged using performance-enhancing drugs while he was with the Atlanta Braves and said after he was done playing that 40 percent to 50 percent of major leaguers were doing the same.

“Honestly, and this may go against what some people think from an ethical standpoint, I think it was the better game,” Rocker said on Cleveland’s 92.3 The Fan. “At the end of the day when people are paying their $80, $120, whatever it may be, to buy their ticket and come watch that game, it’s almost like the circus is in town.

“They are paid to be entertained. They wanna see some clown throw a fastball 101 mph and some other guy hit it 500 feet. That’s entertainment. You’re paying to be entertained.”

Rocker, a Macon native who became infamous while pitching for the Braves for racist comments he made in a Sports Illustrated article in 1999, cited the 1998 home-run chase between Sammy Sosa and McGwire as evidence.

“Was there anything more entertaining than 1998 -- I don’t care how each man got there -- was there anything more entertaining than 1998?” Rocker said. “Watching Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire chase 61 home runs?”

Rocker has a history of saying outlandish things. When asked by SI in 1999 if he’d ever play for the New York Mets, he created a firestorm with his response.

“I’d retire first. It’s the most hectic, nerve-racking city. Imagine having to take the 7 Train to the ballpark looking like you’re riding through Beirut next to some kid with purple hair, next to some (homosexual) with AIDS, right next to some dude who just got out of jail for the fourth time, right next to some 20-year-old mom with four kids. It’s depressing,” he told the magazine. “The biggest thing I don’t like about New York are the foreigners. You can walk an entire block in Times Square and not hear anybody speaking English. Asians and Koreans and Vietnamese and Indians and Russians and Spanish people and everything up there. How the hell did they get in this country?”

Rocker’s career ended in 2003 after pitching for six seasons with the Braves, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays.

ATLANTA — It appears as if the Atlanta Braves’ All-Star partnership with the Toronto Blue Jays is paying off.

The Braves, who have first baseman Freddie Freeman on the NL’s Final Five ballot for next week’s ASG in New York, and the Blue Jays — who have Steve Delabar on the AL ballot — have called on their fans to partner up and vote for the other team’s player each time they case a ballot for theirs.

And so far, it’s worked.

As of Wednesday evening at The Herald’s press time, Freeman led the NL voting over wildly popular Dodgers rookie Yaseil Puig, while Delabar led the AL race over second-place David Robertson, a reliever for the New York Yankees.

Voting, which closes at 4 p.m. today, can be done at mlb.com.


Um ... what?: Braves reliever Martinez goes to Florida for second opinion on shoulder, instead has surprise, season-ending surgery

MIAMI — Reliever Cristhian Martinez had shoulder surgery late Monday to repair fraying of the labrum and rotator cuff. Expected recovery time is seven to eight months after the procedure, which was performed by Dr. James Andrews.

On his Twitter page, Martinez wrote: “Thanks to God’s blessing surgery went well, I appreciate all the love and support given to me by the fans. See you soon, God bless.”

Gonzalez said he knew that Martinez was traveling to Pensacola for a second opinion on his shoulder and that surgery was being considered. But, as of 4 p.m., he hadn’t received any update on the situation and wasn’t aware Martinez had surgery. The Braves made no announcement until just before 10 p.m.

Martinez had a 3.63 ERA in 100 appearances with the Braves during the 2011-2012 seasons. He pitched in two games in the first week of this season before complaining of soreness in his right shoulder.

Gattis, Schafer updates: Evan Gattis hit soft-tossed pitches and caught Tim Hudson’s between-starts bullpen session Tuesday in Miami, another step in the rookie slugger’s return from a strained oblique.

Gattis could take batting practice as soon as Wednesday, although the Braves might have him wait until they get back to Atlanta for that. They start a four-game home series against the Reds today. Gattis isn’t likely to come off the DL until after next week’s All-Star break.

Outfielder Jordan Schafer, on the DL with a badly bruised ankle, was given the OK to do some light running Tuesday. He said Monday was the first day the ankle felt “a lot better.” He’s eligible to come off the DL July 19, the first day after the All-Star break, and is expected to be ready then or soon thereafter.


Chris Johnson thriving as every-day player

MIAMI — Chris Johnson began the season in a third-base platoon with Juan Francisco, playing mostly against left-handers even though Johnson has always hit better against right-handers. And he’s batted eighth more than anywhere else in the lineup, a spot some hitters loathe because they don’t get as many good pitches to hit.

Those factors make it even more impressive what Johnson has done in his first season with the Braves, batting .332 with 25 extra-base hits (six homers), a .374 on-base percentage and .855 OPS in 72 games coming into this week.

That included 15-for-37 (.405) with eight RBI in a nine-game hitting streak, included two of the Braves’ seven hits in Monday’s 14-inning, 7-1 win at Miami.

He’s hit well since spring training, but has become more consistent since becoming a lineup regular after Francisco was traded five weeks ago.

“That’s the thing that helps the most, is the fact that you can play day-to-day,” Johnson said. “When you’re platooning, early in the season I wanted to get out there and get some hits, because you know, looking at the schedule, there could be two righties the next two days and you may not get to hit for a couple of days. Now I can go out there, have my approach and work on it day-in and day-out. You get in a groove and it’s just easier to stay in that groove when you’re playing every day.”

He had a .349 average in his past 44 games with 12 doubles, four homers, a .396 OBP and .514 slugging percentage. Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has continued to hit Johnson eighth — despite pleas from fans who want him higher in the order. Gonzalez likes having him down in the order to give the lineup balance and a threat there.

“The eighth hole, sometimes (teams) just throw a guy down there and don’t worry about it,” Gonzalez said. “But a lot of times the eighth hole comes up big during the course of the game. Occasionally with runners on base they’ll (pitch around him), and you need a guy down there to be able to handle that situation....

“Maybe he’s having that kind of success because he’s in that spot now.”

Before Wednesday, when he made his 26th start in that position, Johnson had a .372 average with four homers, a .426 OBP and .581 slugging percentage in 86 at-bats hitting eighth, his best in each of those categories at any of the four lineup spots where he’s had at least 30 at-bats. He went 2-for-4 on Wednesday with a run and an RBI during Atlanta’s 6-2 loss to the Marlins, providing much of the only offense in the loss.

“Really, the only difference hitting eighth is when there are guys in scoring position,” Johnson said. “Then you have to determine whether the pitcher wants to throw you strikes or not. Other than that, early in the ballgame if there’s nobody on, or if there’s a guy on first, they’re going to pitch you the same exact way they would if you were batting 1 through 7.”

Johnson is one of the few Braves who’ve hit well with runners in scoring position, with a .304 average (17-for-56) and .365 OBP.

“When there’s guys in scoring position, you have to recognize quickly if they’re trying to pitch to you or around you (when batting eighth),” he said. “That’s the thing. If they’re not, you have to be more patient. That’s one thing that’s helped me out is, I haven’t been able to be patient in my career, so now I’ve kind of realized that, and I think it’s helped me out a little bit.”

He looks at that positive in batting eighth, rather than wondering how he might fare getting more at-bats higher in the order.

“I don’t mind (hitting eighth),” he said. “I would never ask to be moved up. I would never say that I wanted to be. That would be a slap in the face of the seven guys who are batting ahead of me. Plus, I’m in the lineup every day. That’s all I want.”

Gonzalez added: “That’s the type of guy he is. Team player. He comes from a baseball family; his dad’s a longtime coach (Ron Johnson is a former major league third-base coach and current manager of the Orioles’ Triple-A affiliate.) So he knows what it’s all about, teamwork and that kind of stuff.”