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Braves believe offense will improve

Atlanta left fielder Justin Upton hits a home run in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals at Turner Field on Friday. The Braves hope their offense improves. (Reuters)

Atlanta left fielder Justin Upton hits a home run in the eighth inning against the Washington Nationals at Turner Field on Friday. The Braves hope their offense improves. (Reuters)

ATLANTA — While the Braves’ patchwork starting rotation surpassed all expectations through the first nine games of the season, the offense has been alarmingly unproductive and some of the same problems that plagued the lineup a year ago have carried over.

Even after scoring four runs in consecutive games Wednesday and Thursday — nearly double their average output through seven games — the Braves entered their series opener against Washington ranked 29th among 30 major league teams in both runs (23) and on-base percentage (.268). They were ahead of only the Padres in each category.

First baseman Freddie Freeman ranked among the majors’ top hitters before Friday with a .419 average, .514 OBP and .677 slugging percentage, but the Braves’ No. 3 hitter has gotten precious few opportunities to drive in runs with Jason Heyward and B.J. Upton struggling in the first two spots in the order, and Chris Johnson off to a sluggish start in the cleanup spot behind him.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said before Friday’s game that he wasn’t concerned by the early scoring woes.

“I’ve seen guys all of a sudden starting to heat up, or the at-bats are getting better,” he said. “It’s going to be a lineup that, we’re going to run through some good stretches and we’re going to scuffle a little bit. That’s just the way our lineup is. But of late, I’ve seen our lineup be OK.”

Justin Upton had two home runs in Thursday’s 6-4 loss to the Mets, the first time the Braves scored more than one run in any of their four losses.

Freeman was 2-for-3 with two walks with runners in scoring position before Friday, while the rest of the Braves were 11-for-58 (.190), including Justin Upton’s 2-for-10 and Chris Johnson’s 0-for-9 with five strikeouts.

Freeman was asked if the lack of production through nine games was a concern to the players like it was to much of the fan base.

“No, it’s not a concern at all,” he said. “No one’s panicking. It’s not like we’re 0-9. It’d be a lot different if we were 0-9. But our pitching has been unbelievable. Unfortunately as an offense we haven’t been able to give them the support that they’ve been giving to us. We’re 5-4 because of them, not because of the offense. So if we can just get back on the right track, instead of one guy maybe get three guys having a good game, we’ll get some runs on the board.”

Before Friday, the Braves had produced a .171 average and .293 OBP from the leadoff spot, where Heyward had started every game, and and .189 average and OBP from the 2-hole, where B.J. Upton had started all but one game.

They had a .265 or lower batting average at every spot in the lineup except Freeman’s, and the Braves’ .324 OBP at the fifth spot was the only spot other than third where they had an OBP as high as .295.

The Braves were hitting .207 with a .237 OBP with runners on base before Friday, and .213 with a .246 OBP in 61 at-bats with runners in scoring position, including 2-for-29 with runners in scoring position and two outs. Pitcher Julio Teheran had one of the two hits in the latter category.

In close-and-late situations, the Braves were a National League-worst 8-for-57 (.140) with one homer, two walks and 18 strikeouts.

“It’s just nine games into the season,” Freeman said. “People are going to get the little kinks out. Jason came through the other day, and Justin looked awesome (Thursday). He hit home runs to right and left, and (his homer on an 0-2 pitch) to right field here, that gets me really excited. He’s coming through, Andrelton (Simmons), once we get him back he’s been swinging it good. Dan (Uggla) still looks great at the plate, even if he’s not getting any results right now. And Chris Johnson is Chris Johnson, he’s going to hit no matter what.”