With 10 straight wins, all is rosy in Atlanta
ATLANTA (AP) — Chipper Jones retired last year, Bobby Cox the season before that.
Despite the loss of two franchise cornerstones, the Atlanta Braves seem to be as steady as ever.
Only 13 games into the season, the Braves have lost just once. They've won 10 straight — best in the majors — and already lead the National League East by 4½ games.
Yes, everyone in the clubhouse would say it's far too early to print playoff tickets, but it seems that general manager Frank Wren has built a roster that's packed with power, deep in pitching and poised to carry Atlanta to the postseason.
"We've been able to win some ballgames early on," left fielder Justin Upton said. "We know it's a long season, so our goal is to go out and play good baseball."
That hasn't been a problem thus far.
Atlanta's latest victory was engineered by another display from one of the most potent lineups in the majors. Jason Heyward, Upton and Dan Uggla each hit solo homers in the eighth inning to help the Braves rally past Kansas City for a 6-3 victory on Tuesday night.
Juan Francisco hit a pair of solo homers earlier in the game, Chris Johnson followed Uggla with an RBI single and Atlanta got solid relief pitching from Eric O'Flaherty and closer Craig Kimbrel for another win.
The Braves' power display is nothing new to Fredi Gonzalez, Cox's hand-picked successor as manager.
"It's nice to have that type of arsenal on your club because it's a game-changer," Gonzalez said. "One swing of the bat and you can put some runs on the board. So that's always nice."
A three-game sweep of the Nationals last weekend in Washington gave a stamp of legitimacy to a team that wondered what kind of identity it would have after the retirement of Jones, Atlanta's longtime slugging third baseman.
But during a busy offseason, Wren signed center fielder B.J. Upton to the richest contract in team history, pulled off a blockbuster trade for his brother, Justin Upton, and paired them with Heyward to give the Braves three potential five-tool outfielders.
Atlanta had the luxury of adding the Uptons not so much to resurrect the team but to enhance it, and that's because the Braves' farm system aced high-round draft picks like Heyward, first baseman Freddie Freeman, Kimbrel, shortstop Andrelton Simmons and starter Mike Minor.
Gonzalez, now in his third season, said he gets a kick out of filling out his lineup card every day even with first baseman Freeman and catcher Brian McCann currently on the disabled list.
Freeman, the runner-up to Kimbrel for NL rookie of the year in 2011, is expected to return from a strained oblique next week.
McCann, a six-time All-Star who's recovering from offseason shoulder surgery, might take a little longer, but while he and Freeman are rehabbing, the Braves are getting big numbers from Evan Gattis, Chris Johnson and Francisco.
Justin Upton, now in his third week with the Braves, enjoys looking around the clubhouse and seeing a solid starting rotation, a dependable bullpen and power — lots and lots of power.
"It's fun when you can do that," Upton said. "But our goal is to go out and play good baseball every night, pitch well, play good defense, put together good at-bats, and we've been able to do that so far."
Atlanta's 10-game winning streak is its longest since the club won 15 straight from April 15-May 2, 2000. At 12-1, the Braves are off to their best start since they began the 1994 season 13-1.
Heyward hit the go-ahead homer in the eighth with an opposite-field shot into the left-field seats before Upton and Uggla followed to make it 5-2.
After Francisco walked to chase Herrera, Johnson followed with an RBI single off Aaron Crow that scored pinch-runner Jordan Schafer from second. All four runs were charged to Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera.
Luis Avilan recorded the first out of the ninth before injuring his left hamstring. Avilan limped slowly off the field with the help of trainer Jim Lovell and Gonzalez before getting carted off the field.
Kimbrel finished off the Royals by striking out pinch-hitter Billy Butler, giving up an RBI single to Alex Gordon and retiring Alcides Escobar on a groundout in a non-save situation.
Kris Medlen, who was trying to improve to 17-3 in his career as a starter, allowed six hits and two runs — one earned — with no walks and five strikeouts in seven innings.
On Wednesday, Minor will make his third start. The left-hander, the seventh overall draft pick in 2009, is 2-0 with a 0.85 ERA in 13 innings this year.
"Any time you can do like our pitching staff did and hold us in the game and keep it close and give us a chance to win it late, that fires us up and makes us want to go out and get a good ballgame for them," Justin Upton said. "Kris did a great job tonight and kept them (mostly) off the board and gave us a chance."