BRAVES NOTEBOOK: Beachy’s bad night leaves Atlanta's with many questions; 3B Johnson making serious run at NL batting title

Brandon Beachy takes a deep breath and readjusts his hat after a visit on the mound Monday night from Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell. Beachy lasted just 3 2/3 innings.

Brandon Beachy takes a deep breath and readjusts his hat after a visit on the mound Monday night from Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell. Beachy lasted just 3 2/3 innings.

ATLANTA — Had Frank Wren been seeking a sign in Monday night’s doings, the general manager might have traded his top 10 prospects for Jake Peavy after 2 1/2 innings. The return of Brandon Beachy from Tommy John surgery made it seem as if Tommy John — who was by trade a pitcher, not an orthopedist — had performed the operation.

But, as Wren had noted earlier in the day, the Atlanta Braves didn’t view Beachy’s return as make-or-break/deal-or-no-deal. “(Monday night’s outing) is not going to tell us that,” Wren said. “(Monday night’s outing) is just the first step.”

The hours leading to the trade deadline, which arrives today, are always overheated, but for these Braves they’ve been especially fraught. On Thursday they lost Tim Hudson to a broken ankle. Over the weekend they swept first-place St. Louis as their starting pitchers yielded three runs over 20 innings. And then, on Monday, the man who led the majors in ERA when he last threw a major-league pitch took his long-deferred turn.

Through the All-Star break, the Braves had every reason to like their rotation. Indeed, the performance of those five men was the key reason this team led the National League East. But Paul Maholm hurt his wrist July 20 in Chicago and Hudson was lost for the duration and thus did clarity take a hike. Do the Braves need more starting pitching to win in October? Do they need it just to get them to October?

Answers: Maybe on the first count, probably not on the second. It would take a collapse more epic than the 2011 edition to blow this lead, but what happens beyond the 162nd game is something else entirely.

Hot-hitting Johnson in contention for NL batting title

ATLANTA — It only took about four months, and the departure of Juan Francisco, for Chris Johnson to get enough at-bats to qualify for the league batting leaders. But now the rest of baseball knows exactly the kind of hitter the Braves have had on their hands this season.

Johnson entered Monday night batting .338 on the season, tops in the National League. He had joined Yadier Molina of the Cardinals in the top spot Saturday night at .332, then out-hit Molina Sunday night, going 3-for-4 to Molina’s 2-for-4 to move into sole possession of the league lead. He was hitting .339 entering Tuesday.

Not that he was focusing much on Molina during the Braves weekend sweep of the NL Central’s first-place Cardinals.

“I’m trying not to look at that right now,” Johnson said. “We’ve got two months of baseball left. I start worrying about getting more hits than him, it’s just going to go downhill.”

Johnson has gotten the attention of the last Brave to win a batting title though. Chipper Jones, who won the NL batting title in 2008 by hitting .364 at age 36, took notice when Johnson moved into the league lead, and congratulated Chris Johnson on Twitter.

“Go get you a batting title! Proud of you,” Jones tweeted.

Johnson was the so-called “throw in” in the offseason trade for Justin Upton from Arizona. He was a guy the Braves came out of spring training planning to platoon at third base with Francisco. But not only did Johnson win the job outright, he made the best use of all those at-bats he got against left-handed pitching. The right-handed hitting Johnson actually came to Atlanta batting nearly 30 points higher for his career against right-handers than left. (.283 vs. .255).

“I tried to work on that, getting better at an approach against lefties,” Johnson said. “In my career that’s what usually brought (my average) down. I wasn’t really comfortable facing lefties, but now I enjoy it.”

Johnson, a career .288 hitter, has topped .300 once in his first three full major league seasons when he hit .308 in 94 games with the Astros in 2010 at age 25.

“He gives you a good at-bat every single time out,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “When he was with Houston you only see him six games (a year), so you don’t appreciate it. But now you’ve lived with him since spring training and boy he’s got a really good approach at the plate.”

As important as starting pitching is from April through September, it’s bigger come autumn.

For all his experience, Hudson might not have started either Game 1 or 2 of the Division Series. His career postseason record is 1-3 — the victory was with Oakland in 2002 — and Mike Minor and Julio Teheran have had better seasons. But Hudson’s absence clears a spot in Game 3 or 4. Who takes that? Kris Medlen, less effective this season than last? Maholm, worker of one quality start in his past five? Or the hale-again Beachy?

At his best, Beachy is a playoff-caliber starter. His best wasn’t in evidence Monday. He lasted 3 2/3 innings, yielding eight hits (five for extra bases) and a career-worst seven earned runs. It was remarkable that he took the mound for the fourth inning with a lead. It was almost predictable that he would, on the second pitch of that inning, surrender a tying home run to Nolan Arenado, Colorado’s No. 8 hitter.

Beachy wasn’t wild. He walked only one batter, that after a 10-pitch skirmish with Troy Tulowitzki. He struck out five. He threw mostly fastballs — they topped out at 93 mph — and sliders, trying a few changeups and curves the second time through the order. His pitches were simply too hittable, which is what you’d expect from a man who hadn’t thrown a major-league pitch in 409 days.

Dexter Fowler doubled to right on Beachy’s second pitch of the game. An inning later, Willin Rosario fell behind 0-2 but worked the count full and hoisted a homer the opposite way. In the third, Michael Cuddyer launched a two-run triple over Jason Heyward’s head in center field.

The Rockies mustered at least two base runners against Beachy in every inning. The Braves fell behind 5-0, rallied to lead 6-5, then saw Colorado nose back ahead. (They would win 9-8 in 10 innings.) It was the kind of careening game this team hasn’t seen often, for the basic reason that their starters haven’t often been touched for seven earned runs.

Still, it was just one night. Beachy will surely get better, though whether he’ll be the Beachy of 2012 at any time in 2013 remains unknowable. It took Medlen a while to recover from TJ surgery, you’ll recall, and he had the luxury of working in relief until July last season. The Braves need Beachy to start.

“It still stings,” Beachy said afterward. “I’m not going to chalk this up as part of the process — I’m not going to do that. To give up a lead like that is not acceptable.”

Then this: “I feel good physically. I just need to refine the offspeed stuff. I felt like I was close to getting out of situations.”

Just after noon Monday, the Braves announced they’d traded Cory Rasmus to the Angels for the left-handed reliever Scott Downs, who would arrive at Turner Field in the second inning and wind up winning the game in relief. Of the move, Wren said: “We addressed our primary need ... Right now we’re pretty satisfied with our ‘pen.”

Wren also allowed that “there have been a lot of (trade) conversations (this week) ... We can continue to look and maybe perfect our team.”

Perfection is too much to ask. (At last check, no team has ever finished 162-0.) But Wren has a decision to make these next few hours: Should he reach for a big-ticket starting pitcher — a Peavy, say — or should he bank of Beachy again being peachy sometime soon? A World Series might well hinge on Wren’s choice.