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Braves see much room for improvement after first half

Braves center fielder B.J. Upton was recently placed on the DL and is one of several starters battling injuries during the All-Star break.

Braves center fielder B.J. Upton was recently placed on the DL and is one of several starters battling injuries during the All-Star break.

ATLANTA — The Braves led the National League East throughout the first half, but that doesn’t mean they feel they have played up to their potential.

“I think the best is still ahead of us,” Fredi Gonzalez said.

The Braves manager is right to feel that way.

B.J. Upton, Jason Heyward and Dan Uggla have all hit much less than expected. Brian McCann missed the first month coming back from shoulder surgery. Jason Upton slumped after a big April.

“We really haven’t put everything together yet,” general manager Frank Wren said.

But the Braves, who started the season 12-1, are 54-41 anyway and their six-game lead was the largest in the majors despite the slumps and injuries that have cost them three key players for the season while limiting others.

The bullpen has been able to overcome not having Eric O’Flaherty or Jonny Venters to set up closer Craig Kimbrel, and the starting rotation has been solid despite the absence of a real ace.

Wren figures to be busy before the trading deadlines, though. The Braves have holes, and they don’t want to waste another opportunity. They did that in 2011, when they collapsed down the stretch, and again last year, when they lost the wild-card game to St. Louis.

Gonzalez feels good about the Braves’ chances to hold on to first place.

“We’ve gotten good pitching, but our offense hasn’t hit its stride,” he said. “I think our offense is going to get better in the second half.”

The Braves lead the National League in strikeouts as well as homers. A little more contact would certainly help. So would being able to keep their regulars on the field.

Atlanta goes into the second half with B.J. Upton (abductor) on the disabled list and Freddie Freeman (thumb), Justin Upton (calf) and Heyward (hamstring) hurting.

Wood optioned to Triple-A: The Braves optioned left-hander Alex Wood back to Triple-A Gwinnett on Saturday, but not for long.

The impressive rookie was sent down only because the Braves needed to open a roster spot for outfielder Jose Constanza, after outfielders B.J. Upton and Justin Upton were hurt in Friday’s loss to the Reds. Constanza was recalled from Gwinnett.

With the injuries to Heyward and the Uptons not considered serious, and time to heal during the All-Star break that starts Monday, the Braves hoped to avoid putting any of them on the 15-day disabled list

Since Wood wouldn’t have been available for games Saturday or Sunday after throwing 57 pitches in 3-2/3 scoreless innings Friday, the Braves optioned him. The former University of Georgia standout is expected to return to the majors on July 23, the first day eligible, or even sooner if the Braves end up putting another player on the DL.

Players must spend a minimum of 10 days in the minors after being sent down, but that restriction is waived if a player is recalled to replace a player subsequently placed on the DL. If one of the outfielders — or anyone else — is slow to heal during the break, the Braves could make a DL move after the break.

Wood, 22, has shown why he’s considered a big part of the Braves’ future and a leading candidate for a starting-rotation spot next season, or even this season if the need arises. A hard-throwing lefty with an unorthodox, knees-and-elbows-flying delivery, he has a 2.45 ERA in 16 games (one start) since a promotion from Double-A Mississippi.