Batting order change fuels recent Braves surge
by T.K. Greer
Aug 03, 2013 | 2511 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward has shined in the leadoff spot in the batting order. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward has shined in the leadoff spot in the batting order. (AP Photo/David Tulis)
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It took a while -- a little more than the half the season to be exact -- but it looks like Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez has found his ideal batting order for the 2013 Braves.

Atlanta posted a 6-0 record heading into this weekend since Gonzalez inserted Jason Heyward into the leadoff spot in the lineup. Heyward replaced Andrelton Simmons at the top of the order and has raised his average 12 points in that six-game span.

Simmons also has caught fire in the No. 8 spot in the lineup, raising his average 10 points in that same span and recording several big hits, including the game-winner one week ago to cap a sweep of St. Louis. Simmons actually had a strong July, with 10 extra-base hits and three strikeouts, but he seemed overwhelmed in the leadoff spot at times.

Now, the Braves’ first three hitters in their lineup are arguably their best: Heyward, Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman. Batting them in the top three spots almost guarantees they each will have four at-bats a game. And once B.J. Upton comes back off the disabled list and pushes Evan Gattis to the bench, Brian McCann will likely inherit the fourth spot in the lineup, meaning the Braves’ best four hitters will get more at-bats.

Oh, and Chris Johnson, who only leads the league in hitting with a .346 average, will likely hit fifth behind McCann.

This is a lineup that all of a sudden looks a lot better than it did two weeks ago.

To be clear, the need to move Simmons out from the top of the order is not a slight against the youngster. He’s clearly uncomfortable in the leadoff spot, and he has thrived as the eighth-place hitter. Gonzalez can afford to leave the 21-year-old in a lineup spot where he’s most comfortable.

Besides, Heyward is taking to the leadoff spot like a duck to water. The fourth-year veteran can draw walks, hit for power and run.

Atlanta actually won its last game with Simmons in the leadoff spot. It was the first game of the past seven-game home stand, which saw the Braves complete their first perfect home stand of seven or more games since April

2000. Atlanta scored 51 runs on 84 hits in seven games. Most of that damage came against Colorado when the Braves scored 40 runs in four games.

Atlanta had an unfathomable 11.5 game lead in the NL East standings heading into the weekend. The cushion is big enough that Gonzalez can continue to tinker with his lineup and find the best combination heading into the September. It’s starting to look like he may have found it a month early.

Losing Hudson

Tim Hudson’s unfortunate injury in New York has no doubt been the downer of the year for Braves fans specifically and baseball fans in general.

Hudson has been one of the most popular Braves players since he arrived in

2005. His fun-loving personality and bulldog mound presence make him and easy guy to root for to do well.

Hudson’s family, including his wife Kim, was in New York and witnessed the injury in person. Kim took to Twitter later that night and praised the play of Eric Young Jr., who stepped on Hudson’s ankle to cause the fracture. It was a tremendous display of heart and forgiveness from Kim and one that

Young no doubt appreciated considering how upset he was over the incident.

Hudson is in the final year of his contract and can become a free agent after the World Series. Whether he throws another pitch for Atlanta or not, it’s a sure bet we haven’t seen the last of him in a big-league uniform. If we have, Hudson has completed a 15-year major league career and never -- never -- had a losing season.

Trade winds

Atlanta’s only trade prior to the July 31 trade deadline was the acquisition of left-handed reliever Scott Downs from Anaheim.

It’s no secret the Braves needed another lefty after season-ending injuries to Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, and Atlanta got a solid one in Downs.

He doesn’t throw as hard as he once did, but he still touches 90 mph, and he has a tremendous sinker.

Look for Atlanta to make perhaps one more small move this month for a backup infielder -- perhaps one of Toronto’s Mark DeRosa or Emilio Bonifacio if one can make it through waivers.

Way to go Todd! We would be remiss if there was no mention of the otherworldly week Jacksonville native and former Jacksonville State baseball star Todd Cunningham had.

Cunningham was called up by the Braves on Monday night after backup outfielder Reed Johnson went on the disabled list. All Cunningham did was rip a single to left field in his first major league at-bat, delighting his mother, other family members and several JSU fans and officials who were in attendance.

“It was a fantastic evening, and I was honored to be in the stands,” said

Greg Seitz, JSU’s sports information director. “Todd is very gifted and talented baseball player, and he’s an even better person. I know he has worked extremely hard for this opportunity, and it was just a thrill to see the crowd of more than 30,000 cheer for him as he picked up his first hit.”
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