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BRAVES NOTEBOOK: Struggling Braves have rough homestand ahead

Braves players sit in their dugout in San Diego’s PETCO Park during a recent three-game series with the Padres, who swept the slumping Braves. (Reuters)

Braves players sit in their dugout in San Diego’s PETCO Park during a recent three-game series with the Padres, who swept the slumping Braves. (Reuters)

SAN DIEGO — The Braves are at a crossroads.

When they headed west last Tuesday fresh from three straight wins over the Padres, the second-place Braves had pulled to within a half-game of National League East-leading Washington.

Then they lost three straight to the Dodgers in Los Angeles and were swept in a three-game series in San Diego, losing the last two games in walk-off fashion in extra innings. They started Monday 3 1/2 games behind the Nationals and have slipped to fourth in the wild-card race.

After getting Monday off, the Braves will end the road trip with two games in Seattle before returning home — when it really gets tough.

The next homestand includes three games with the Nationals, four with the Dodgers and three interleague games with the Oakland A’s.

That’s right, 10 straight games against division leaders — with the last seven of those against the two teams with the best records in the major leagues.

“We’ve got to score runs,” said Braves catcher Gerald Laird after Braves were outscored 17-6 by the Padres. “We’ve got to get it going because it doesn’t get any easier.”

GONZALEZ WANTS ACCOUNTABILITY: After Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons made an ill-advised decision to bunt late in Saturday’s 12-inning loss to the Padres, the Braves shortstop wasn’t at his locker to offer an explanation. For the second consecutive night, Simmons declined to be interviewed by reporters after a loss.

That didn’t sit well with manager Fredi Gonzalez, who has heard that a few too many times this season.

“He takes losses pretty hard,” Gonzalez said. “But that’s something he needs to get better at, to be accountable for whatever. We’re dealing with a young man who takes losses hard. But he needs to. … Hell, it’s easy to stand at your locker when you’re 4-for-4 and you just finished winning the game. It’s hard sometimes, but it’s a learning process.

“We forget sometimes how young these guys are. It’s a maturity thing. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. Everybody likes stuff to be written that’s good about them, but when you lose a tough game or someone needs to ask you a question about something, you need to be at your locker.”

That type of thing was rarely an issue in the past for Braves teams that had several veteran leaders who could be counted upon to speak after wins or losses or on the state of the team in general during good or bad times.

“We have three or four guys (who do),” Gonzalez said of the current team. “(Gerald) Laird. You see Chris (Johnson) stand at his locker. For the most part, I think everybody does that. But when (a media relations official) tells me a couple of guys don’t want to talk (after a game), that’s not right. That’s something that we need to — that I need to — address. And I will.”

Gonzalez said he would prefer a player at least tell reporters he’s upset and will wait until the next day to talk, rather than not being at his locker and sending word through a team official that he doesn’t want to comment after a game.

VENTERS ENCOURAGED: It was just one more step in what’s been a long and frustrating recovery for Jonny Venters, but it was a significant step in his view.

The Braves left-hander threw 15 pitches from the bullpen mound Friday at Petco Park, the first time Venters threw from a mound since having a platelet-rich plasma injection in his surgically repaired elbow in mid-June. The veteran reliever said he threw at an estimated 70-80 percent effort.

“I was excited to get out there and see what it felt like, and it felt normal, really,” said Venters, who is 15 months into an attempted comeback from a second Tommy John surgery in May 2013. “You always want to see how you feel the next day. So far I’m fine. So I’m going to go out and play catch, and hopefully get off the mound again here in the next couple of days.”

Venters got the PRP injection from Dr. James Andrews after having continued discomfort and tightness in the elbow each time he ramped up his rehab throwing program.

One of the majors’ dominant relievers just a few years, Venters has had a setbacks in his surgery rehab and hasn’t pitched in a game since spring training 2013, but remains optimistic about pitching for the Braves this season.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “That’s the goal. That’s my goal…. It’s tough to put a timetable on it after you have two setbacks. You don’t know how it’s going to respond. But I’m happy with the way it’s going right now.”

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has made it a recent policy not to talk about Venters’ rehab at every stage or development. He said the goal is just to get Venters healthy again, and that there’s no timetable for his return.

— Reuters and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report