Justin Upton reached nine home runs Thursday in his 15th game of the season, the earliest of any Brave in franchise history. Pretty good first impression.
For Upton, though, he doesn’t feel all that different than in his 2011 season with Arizona, when he hit his ninth home run May 18 on his way to an MVP-caliber season. Ironically, his ninth homer came against the Braves and off Julio Teheran, the pitcher he supported with his fifth-inning shot Thursday night.
Upton hit 31 home runs in 2011 and finished fourth in National League MVP voting.
“I’ve gotten hot to where I’m getting hits,” Upton said. “I’ve gotten homer-hot before. Everybody hits these streaks. I’ve just done it to the (extreme) right now. I feel like I played just as good two years ago.”
Part of what has made this start unique for Upton, though, is the work he’s doing with Braves hitting coach Greg Walker. He said he’s thrived with Walker encouraging his aggressive approach.
“We’re not worried about working pitch counts and drawing walks, we’re worried about getting a good pitch to hit and trying to handle it,” Upton said. “We’ve hit it off pretty good, me and Greg Walker, so I think the philosophy is everybody is at the big-league level for a reason. Let’s work with what got you here.”
Before Thursday, Chipper Jones and Dale Murphy were tied for the earliest to nine home runs, doing it in 17 games, Jones in 1998 and Murphy in 1985. Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews hit nine in 18 games in 1959.
As eye-popping as the numbers are for Upton, who was leading the majors entering Friday, two ahead of Colorado’s Dexter Fowler, manager Fredi Gonzalez has been just as impressed with what he’s seen off the field.
“I’ve gotten to know him now for two months, and I really appreciate the young man,” Gonzalez said. “This guy has got some intensity. He’s got some baseball savvy. You can talk to him about the game. He knows it. He’s sharp.”
Johnson capitalizing: After spending the latter part of last season with Arizona as a platoon player and projected to platoon to start this season as well, Chris Johnson has made the most of his chances to play every day.
Given Freddie Freeman’s oblique injury, Johnson has started 13 of the Braves’ first 16 games, nine at first base and four at third. He was hitting .438 through Thursday, which led the majors, and leading the team with seven multi-hit games.
“(Freeman) is a big part of our team; we want him back,” Johnson said. “But it’s good to be out there every day and getting consistent at-bats. When you do that, you can kind of get into a groove and get rolling.”
Freeman started a minor league rehabilitation assignment Friday with Triple-A Gwinnett in Charlotte, N.C. He was scheduled to work as a designated hitter Friday, then play at first base in games Saturday and Sunday. If all goes well he’ll rejoin the Braves on Monday in Colorado and be back in the lineup.
Juan Francisco is hitting .318 with three home runs and seven RBIs, but Gonzalez might have to think twice about sitting Johnson against righties.
“He’s getting an opportunity to play every day, and he’s showing that he could do it,” Gonzalez said.
Patience with Avilan, Teheran: Luis Avilan threw a 25-pitch bullpen session Friday and jogged some without pain in his hamstring. It was an encouraging sign for the Braves, who will continue to hold out hope he can be ready to pitch before the team leaves for Colorado. If he can’t, the Braves likely will place him on the disabled list so they can have as many arms available as possible at Coors Field.
Gonzalez is preaching patience with rookie Julio Teheran, who is winless with a 7.31 ERA through his first three starts, but has managed to keep the Braves in each of those games. He worked out of a bases-loaded jam Thursday night and left the game after five innings with the score tied 4-4. The Braves won 6-4 on a pinch-hit, two-run homer by Evan Gattis.
“This is the third young starter we have,” Gonzalez said. “(Brandon) Beachy went through it, and he came out of it OK. (Mike) Minor, remember last year and the first five, six, seven outings? He’ll give up a three-run homer, and all of a sudden he started getting better and better and minimizing the damage. It’s a growing thing.”