One after another, balls rocketed off Evan Gattis’ bat Wednesday morning, at least a dozen landing far beyond the fences at Marlins Park.
It was the Braves rookie’s first rounds of batting practice since straining an oblique just more than three weeks ago, but you wouldn’t have known from watching. El Oso Blanco hasn’t lost strength or bat speed.
“It felt great,” said Gattis, who graduated from hitting soft-tossed “flips” to batting practice thrown by bullpen catcher Alan Butts. “I couldn’t feel (the oblique strain). Felt good. A little rusty, but I feel real good. I feel close, ready to play. See how it is tomorrow, get another BP, then hopefully get in some games.”
On the DL since June 18, Gattis hopes to be cleared to begin a minor league rehab assignment before next week’s All-Star break. That could set him up for a return from the disabled list during the July 19-21 interleague series against the White Sox in Chicago, where the Braves will use a designated hitter.
In his only game as a DH, Gattis went 3-for-4 with a double, a homer and two RBIs. The catcher/outfielder also was 6-for-8 with four homers as a pinch-hitter, and his bench bat has been sorely missed by the Braves.
He hit .252 with 11 doubles, 14 homers, 37 RBIs and a .577 slugging percentage in 163 at-bats before his injury. Gattis still has twice as many pinch-hit homers as the rest of the Braves combined, and his four homers in 23 at-bats in close-and-late situations is tied with Justin Upton for the team lead (Upton has four in 54 at-bats).
Gattis had six more homers and eight more RBIs than any other major league rookie entering Wednesday’s games. His slugging percentage was second among rookies behind the Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig (.659), with no other rookie at .500.
The Braves have been careful not to rush Gattis back. They want him healthy for the playoff race.
Gattis took batting practice with outfielder Jordan Schafer, the first on-field hitting for Schafer since he was DL last week with a badly bruised ankle from a foul ball. Schafer should also be ready shortly after the All-Star break.
Gattis was excited to punish baseballs again.
“It’s the first time I’ve hit in BP on the field in a long time,” he said. “Absolutely, it feels good. A little rusty, but it felt good. I feel ready to play. I feel close.”
Freeman ahead of Puig in Final Vote: Three days after teammates Kris Medlen and Dan Uggla said it was a shame that Freddie Freeman had no chance to make the National League All-Star team as a Final Vote candidate against Yasiel Puig and the ESPN- and MLB Network-fueled Puig publicity machine, Freeman remained ahead of the Dodgers rookie.
An outpouring of support from Braves fans throughout the South and around the world, along with a clever marketing campaign by Braves employees, helped Freeman maintain an unexpected lead over Puig and the rest of the five-man field with a day until online and text-message voting ends at 4 p.m. Thursday.
“It’s incredible,” Freeman said, after the latest ballot update showed Freeman first and Puig second, followed by San Francisco’s Hunter Pence, Washington’s Ian Desmond, and the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez. “I didn’t know people knew about me. I just go out there and try to win baseball games. To have people jump on my side and start voting for me, it’s incredible. Hopefully, it pays off and I get to represent the Braves with Craig (Kimbrel) in New York.”
When ESPN.com immediately began urging readers to vote for Puig after the field was announced, some Braves cursed the selection process and the bias shown toward the Dodgers phenom who had barely a month in the big leagues. Braves pitcher Kris Medlen said Sunday that it wouldn’t matter if Freeman had six homers and 20 RBIs this week at Miami, because Puig would win regardless.
And yet, after more than three and a half days of voting, Freeman was still in the lead.
The big first baseman was humbled by the passionate response from Braves fans and the Tweets he’d seen from other athletes, such as the Falcons’ Roddy White, and from celebrities including rapper Lil Jon. He was blown away by the efforts of teammates, who have held up handmade “#VoteFreddie” signs in the dugout during games since Sunday, and had T-shirts made with Hugs For Votes and #VoteFreddie messages on front.
As Freeman spoke to reporters in the visitor’s clubhouse at Marlins Park before Wednesday’s game, pitcher Tim Hudson had a marker in hand and was working on a sign on piece of cardboard ripped from a box.
“That’s a 15-year veteran doing stuff like that for me,” Freeman said. “It’s just unimaginable, the support I’ve got the last few days. It’s incredible.”