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BRAVES NOTEBOOK: First B.J., now Justin --- Upton brothers take turns struggling at plate

After hitting .298 in April and jumping out to the MLB lead in homers, Atlanta’s Justin Upton has cooled off considerably, batting just .223 with 38 strikeout in 30 games.

After hitting .298 in April and jumping out to the MLB lead in homers, Atlanta’s Justin Upton has cooled off considerably, batting just .223 with 38 strikeout in 30 games.

ATLANTA — The Braves played their third noon game in three weeks Wednesday, which has become a regular day off for Justin Upton. So he was out of the lineup Wednesday as the Braves had the early start following a night game against the Pirates and are in the midst of 20 games in 20 days.

That said, Upton also knows his timing is off at the plate. He’s still getting his hits, but it has been 15 games since he hit a home run — over a stretch of 63 at-bats. That’s news for a guy who led the majors in home runs in April with 12.

Upton reached 12 home runs the earliest of any player in Braves franchise history, doing it in only 23 games. But after hitting .298 in April, Upton has hit .223 (25-for-112) with 38 strikeouts in his past 30 games.

“It’s a combination of some good pitching and me not being in sync,” Upton said. “Sometimes it leaves you, and you’ve got to battle at-bats until you find it again.”

His struggles haven’t been in the same realm as his brother, B.J., but Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said both Upton brothers have a lot going on mechanically that Walker is still in the process of trying to learn.

“Both of them are off-the-charts talent, but they’re somewhat complicated in their game as far as their swings,” Walker said. “And it’s up to me and (assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher) to come up to speed. And we’re using these scuffles hopefully as a learning opportunity, to learn what makes them tick, how to get out of it and not last for a month.”

Walker said he and Fletcher have watched as much video as they can get their hands on and are in constant conversation with both Uptons to get an idea of what they’re feeling at the plate. Chipper Jones even went in the cage with B.J. on Tuesday afternoon.

Walker said he wants both Uptons focusing on timing the fastball.

“Both of them right now, they’ve got to get their timing based off the fastball and still be able to compete on breaking balls,” Walker said. “That’s the first rule of hitting. You have to prepare for the fastball. And at times both of them have been late on fastballs. That’s a very simplistic answer, but that’s a base to start from.”

BULLPEN WORK: Even though Julio Teheran lost his no-hit bid in the eighth inning Wednesday and would have preferred pitching the ninth for a chance at his first career shutout, both he and Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez know how reliable the Braves’ bullpen has been.

Reliever David Carpenter pitched a perfect ninth, including two strikeouts, to complete the 5-0 victory. The Braves’ bullpen has allowed one run over its past 27 2/3 innings.

Braves relievers outshined a tough Pirates bullpen in a three-game sweep. The Braves and Pirates entered Wednesday’s game tied for the National League lead in bullpen ERA at 2.67, but Braves relievers gave up only one run in seven innings over the series. The Pirates relievers gave up seven runs in 14 1/3 innings.

The only run allowed by the Braves’ bullpen in the past eight games came Friday in the second inning of relief for rookie Alex Wood. But the left-hander with the mid-90s fastball has already impressed with his mound presence and command.

“There are always guys down there that can do the job,” Gonzalez said. “Managers and coaches have just got to trust them, feel comfortable that they can do the job, and then keep putting them in spots where they’re going to be successful. It also helps when you know the ninth inning is going to be covered by (Craig) Kimbrel.”

Gonzalez pointed to the return of Jordan Walden from the disabled list as a stabilizing force. Walden has pitched four scoreless innings since his return from shoulder inflammation. He has provided the Braves’ eighth-inning security with the loss of both Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters to season-ending elbow surgery.

The Braves also have gotten good work from Luis Avilan (seven consecutive scoreless outings), Anthony Varvaro (four scoreless outings on homestand) and Cory Gearrin (three scoreless outings since his three-run outing in New York).

“You’ve just got to get comfortable in those situations because it’s a little different,” O’Flaherty said of the seventh and eighth innings. “There’s a little bit different energy. You’ve just got to control your emotions in those situations, and it may take an outing or two, but they’re so good it’s not going to matter.”


Heyward coming around post-surgery

ATLANTA — Jason Heyward wasn’t hitting before he had to go on the disabled list after an emergency appendectomy and he didn’t hit any better after he came back.

The Braves right fielder may be finally getting untracked, though.

He hit his first homer since April 16 on Monday against Pittsburgh and followed up that two-hit game multi-hit games Tuesday and Wednesday as the Braves swept the Pirates.

“It’s good to see results,” Heyward said.

His average was still just .175, but at least it’s heading in the right direction.

“I’m sure he doesn’t like walking up there (to the plate) and seeing where his average is,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

Hopefully, it won’t stay down there too much longer.

“I thought he was close,” Gonzalez said. “Hopefully, we’ll get the old Jason Heyward.”

Heyward hit .121 with four extra-base hits and five RBIs in 58 at-bats before his surgery April 21.

“You’ve got to get him some at-bats,” Gonzalez said.

SIMMONS STREAKING: Andreton Simmons extended his hitting streak to 11 games with a leadoff infield single Wednesday and added a second single later. He finished 2-for-5 with a run scored and is 18-for-50 during the streak, raising his average to .259. He had his first walk-off hit Tuesday, hitting a double in the 10th inning to beat the Pirates.

VAVARO PITCHING WELL: Anthony Varvaro is 3-0 after getting credit for Tuesday’s 10-inning victory over the Pirates and has a 2.23 ERA in 23 appearances. He hasn’t given up a run over five innings in his past four outings, allowing just three base runners. Varvaro has 22 strikeouts to seven walks in 32 1/3 innings. Opponents are batting .202 against him.

Ayala, Martinez update: Braves relievers Cristhian Martinez (shoulder) and Luis Ayala (anxiety) have spent the past few days at Turner Field but that was because the Braves had a break in the extended spring training schedule in Orlando with the draft approaching. Gonzalez said neither is close to returning, though Ayala is the closer of the two.

Ayala has been on the DL since April 30 with an anxiety disorder related to high blood pressure symptoms. Since then, he was also diagnosed with a bacterial infection. Ayala, who has lost eight pounds, said he is feeling better and is focused now on regaining his arm strength.


Information from McClatchy News Service and Reuters News Service was used in this report