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BRAVES NOTEBOOK: Braves' Laird not happy with role as third-string catcher

Braves catcher Gerald Laird plays the old fake-a-fan-out game with a ball tied to string during Tuesday's game in San Diego.

Braves catcher Gerald Laird plays the old fake-a-fan-out game with a ball tied to string during Tuesday's game in San Diego.

B.J.’s mini-surge earns higher spot in Braves’ batting order

ATLANTA — After moving from the eighth spot in the batting order to seventh Tuesday, Braves center fielder B.J. Upton was bumped up to sixth in Wednesday’s series finale against the Padres.

The center fielder was 8-for-31 (.258) with a double, two homers, eight walks and a .410 on-base percentage in 10 June games before Wednesday, after going 8-for-55 (.127) with one extra-base hit, six walks and 27 strikeouts in his previous 18 games, which dropped his average to .145 at the end of April.

“You see some of the swings are getting better and better,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Upton’s struggles while explaining the move Wednesday morning. “Also, to kind of move him up into a situation where it might free him up a little bit in baserunning. In the eight-hole sometimes you want to run but you’ve got that pitcher in there, so you don’t want to run (and risk making the last out of an inning).”

Upton has just three stolen bases in six attempts in his first season with the Braves after stealing more than 30 for the past five consecutive seasons with Tampa Bay, including 31 in 37 attempts in 2012.

He began the season in the fifth spot in the order but moved to leadoff by the end of the first week. Upton hit leadoff for just over two weeks, struggling mightily for most of that stretch. After a few games in the 2-hole, he was dropped to the seventh spot, then to eighth and eventually to the bench for most of a week to work on his swing.

NOTES: The Braves struck out 13 times Wednesday ... Justin Upton’s eighth-inning homer was his 10th at Petco Park, tying Adam LaRoche for the most by a visiting player at the San Diego ballpark ... The Braves were swept by the Padres, the first time this season they were swept by an NL team in a three-game series. The Tigers swept the Braves in three games April 26-28 in Detroit ... The series loss was the first for the Braves since dropping two of three vs. Arizona on May 13-15.

ATLANTA — At the 65-game point last season with the Tigers, backup catcher Gerald Laird had played in 28 games and had a .273 average and .321 on-base percentage in 85 plate appearances.

The Braves reached the 65-game point Tuesday, and Laird had a .271 average and .364 OBP in just 18 games and 57 plate appearances, including just eight plate appearances in the team's past 21 games.

“It's a little different, because I didn't sign here thinking this was going to happen,” said Laird, who signed a two-year, $3 million free-agent contract in November, five days after backup catcher David Ross left for Boston. “I signed here (for) two years to be the backup, and obviously that's not what's going on.”

The emergence of rookie slugger Evan Gattis meant a significant reduction in Laird's playing time while Brian McCann was on the disabled list recovering from shoulder surgery. And soon after McCann's return from the DL in early May, Laird, 33, was reduced to third-catcher status.

Braves catchers led the National League in home runs (14), RBI (43) and slugging percentage (.472) before Wednesday, and Gattis and McCann had all but one of the homers and all but six of the RBI. Gattis and McCann had a combined 184 at-bats at catcher before Wednesday, while Laird had 47 (he had a hit in his lone pinch-hit appearance).

“I mean, honestly, I want to win, and Gatty and Mac are doing a great job,” Laird said. “But for the most part, it's tough not getting in there and contributing, especially when you do get in there and you're having success. But it is what it is. With that (contract for) two years, there's really not any place I can go. But it does get frustrating, because I'm sitting on 48 at-bats and it's almost the middle of June.”

He understands the situation and how much it changed after he signed. The Braves could never have expected in November, when Gattis was just starting his breakout winter-ball season in Venezuela, that a 26-year-old non-roster player with no minor league experience above Double-A would have such an overwhelming spring training that it would force team officials to re-assess their catching plans.

Ultimately, the reconfigured their roster in order to keep three catchers once McCann got back, and Laird was eventually reduced to his current role — as a glorified safety net that allows the Braves to play Gattis in left field or to pinch-hit Gattis or McCann when the other of those two is catching.

Laird continued to catch Julio Teheran's starts for several weeks as manager Fredi Gonzalez sought to have the savvy veteran continue helping the rookie pitcher mature and develop. But lately that role has also been reduced as keeping the bats of Gattis and McCann in the lineup became more of a priority.

“With three catchers, it's tough to keep everybody content and happy,” said Gonzalez, who nonetheless likes the flexibility it gives him to pinch-hit with Gattis or McCann. “Three catchers works. It's a better team with three catchers, strategically.”

Laird conceded that, yes, it can be a challenge to stay sharp with so little playing time and so few at-bats.

“Right now I'm going on one start in two weeks?” he said. “I played four days ago, but before that it had been, like, 10 days. And then I also got an at-bat the other day.

“I'm just doing the same approach I had last year. I'm not a big guy to go in there and swing and swing and swing. I just try to keep my approach the same every time I get in there, if I'm starting or if I'm coming in (off the bench). Just try to stay short (with his swing) and try to get base hits, not try to do too much. I think I've done a pretty good job.”

He's hit .389 (7-for-18) with runners on base and is 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position. So he's made the most of limited chances. But lately, those chances have become even more infrequent.

It's a much different scenario for Laird than a year ago, when he filled in so impressively during a couple of stints when Tigers catcher Alex Avila was hurt, that his role grew in September and Laird caught two games in each of the Tigers' postseason series.

He hasn't complained about his current role and only said something about his frustration when asked directly about it by a reporter. If he were going to be a free agent after the season, he said it'd be more difficult to accept because it would hurt his job chances.

“Obviously, we have a really good team and have a chance to win, and that's all I want to do, is win,” he said. “But you want to contribute. I understand where I'm at in my career, but the main thing is it's just tough because, honestly, why I signed here was to be a backup guy. To fall into a third-string role, I didn't know it was going to end up like this.”

While Laird is signed through 2014, McCann is in the option year of his contract and eligible for free agency after the season. The Braves haven't given any indication of their intentions with McCann, but many believe the six-time All-Star will end up signing with an American League team that can afford to give him a lucrative long-term contract similar to the five-year, $75 million deal that St. Louis gave Yadier Molina in 2012.

An AL team could keep McCann's bat in the lineup with some games as designated hitter and eventually move him to the DH role later in the contract if age and the demands of catching take a toll.

In that scenario, the Braves could make Gattis their regular catcher in 2014 and have Laird as his backup.

“If it was a one-year deal, I'd be really upset with the situation right now,” Laird said. “But since there's an opportunity for it to be OK for next year and get some at-bats, and try to get something going on — I mean, I'm only going to be turning 35 when I'm a free agent. I feel like I have a couple more good years, three or four more years. If I was on a one-year deal this year, it'd be a lot bigger problem. But with where I'm at right now, with the at-bats I'm having and the way I'm playing, I'm happy with way I'm doing it and how I'm coming off the bench and playing when I get a chance."

And, he said, “Things can change. You don't wish that upon anyone, but this game's a business, and it could change in a day or two days. You never know what could happen, and I'm back in a role where I'm playing every four or five days. But for the most part, I'm a professional and I've been doing it for a long time, and I understand my role, and I'm going to go out there and do the best I can and I'll be prepared to play.”