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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

J-Up’s hot again, and this time getting plenty of help

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PITTSBURGH – He’s on one of those rolls again, and this time Justin Upton is getting plenty of help from others in the Braves lineup.

In his two seasons with the Braves, J-Up has been the streakiest of the elite hitters I’ve covered in 20 years as a major league beat writer. But when the man is surging, it’s something to behold. And right now, he’s surging. Not as scorching as we’ve seen him – remember, he hit five homers in his first five games as a Brave last season and 12 in April – but plenty hot.

Upton hit his 24th homer and drove in five runs during the Braves’ 11-3 rout of the Pirates on Tuesday, and he’s 13-for-34 (.382) with four homers, 14 RBIs and a .488 OBP during a 10-game hitting streak (team record in that span: 7-3).

“He really got it going there with that three-run homer, and got the guys fired up in the dugout,” Braves pitcher Aaron Harang said of the Upton homer that gave the Braves a 4-0 lead in the third inning. “It was good to see.”

Justin Upton rounds the bases after his three-run homer Tuesday. He drove in five runs and hit the fourth homer of his 10-game hitting streak. (AP photo)

Justin Upton rounds the bases after his three-run homer Tuesday. He drove in five runs and hit the fourth homer of his 10-game hitting streak. (AP photo)

In 31 games since the All-Star break, Upton has hit .315 with 17 extra-base hits (seven homers), 25 RBIs and a .403 OBP and .602 slugging percentage.

“He’s been locked in,” right fielder Jason Heyward said. “It’s nice to have that in your lineup, obviously, and he goes out there every day and plays hard for us, plays good defense in the outfield, and that’s all you can ask. He wants to be in the big spots, he’s not backing down and he has some good guys around him who can help him go up there and relax.”

Ah, yes. That’s the difference in this Upton surge from some previous ones. He’s getting help. Particularly from Heyward, who had three RBIs Tuesday, and Freddie Freeman. Both have sizzled along with Upton lately, giving the Braves a big three that’s fueled a stunning offensive turnaround since the team totaled 18 runs in its 0-8 road trip that ended Aug. 6.

The Braves went 9-18 with a 3.95 ERA and .246 batting average from July 6 to Aug. 6, and totaled just 12 homers and 100 runs in those 27 games (3.7 runs per game).

In 12 games since, they’ve gone 8-4 with a 3.27 ERA while batting .268 with 16 homers and 55 runs (4.6 per game).

They’ve  hit .299 with a 2.60 ERA in their five-game winning streak against the A’s and Pirates, totaling 52 hits, 10 homers and 33 runs including seven or more runs three times.

“From top to bottom we’ve been able to put the ball in play and get hits,” Upton said.

They’ve gotten plenty of hits and RBIs from others on any given night, but Upton, Freeman and Heyward has been the trio that’s carried the bulk of the load lately.

“Yeah, he gets hot and he can carry us,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Upton after Tuesday’s game. “He’s done that a few months. It’s nice to have that big bat right behind Freeman, who’s starting to roll the pole a little bit also.”

Roll the pole? Alrighty then.

Freeman’s, er, pole-rolling includes a .417 average (25-for-60) in his past 16 games with seven doubles, two homers, nine RBIs, a .507 OBP and a .633 slugging percentage. He had an uncharacteristic slump at midseason, but regained his form and has his average back to .296 and his OPS to .877, eighth in the NL, one spot behind Upton (.884).

Oh, and Freeman has 17 homers and 56 extra-base hits, just two shy of his career-best 58 extra-base hits in 2012.

Heyward has again been a marvel in the field – if he doesn’t win his second Gold Glove, the judging/voting is severely flawed — and a steady hitter since his slow start, batting .288 with a .364 OBP and 19 extra-base hits (five homers) since the beginning of June, with 37 runs and 34 RBIs in 66 games.

In his past 23 games, Heyward has hit .337 (29-for-86) with a .392 OBP. The Braves have won six of seven games since Heyward moved back to the leadoff spot.

Still, it’s J-Up that seems to send the Braves offense into overdrive when he’s in one of his torrid stretches of hitting. And after those hot streaks were confined to Turner Field in the first months of the season, lately he’s been almost as productive on the road as at home, a most-welcome development for a Braves team that knew it couldn’t afford to have another lousy road trip. (Upton, like everyone else in the lineup, went cold for most of the winless West Coast trip, his only recent significant slump on the road.)

Upton has hit .320 with 16 homers and a .621 slugging percentage in 63 home games, compared to .255 with eight homers  and a .423 slugging percentage in 57 road games. But here’s what I mean when I say those splits haven’t held up lately:

After hitting just .205 (25-for-122) in his first 32 games away from Turner Field with eight extra-base hits, 11 RBIs, a .274 OBP and a .344 slugging percentage, he’s hit .314 (32-for-102) in his past 25 road games with 12 extra-base hits, 23 RBIs, a .351 OBP and .510 slugging percentage.

“I joked with him earlier this year when we were on the road, ‘Hey, we’re still at home right now, OK?’” Heyward said Tuesday. “I kind of played around with him with that today. But he’s been doing it for us, he’s been big.”

In his past 12 road games, Upton has hit .327 with seven extra-base hits and 13 RBIs.

“I’m still doing the same things I’ve been doing all season,” Upton said late Tuesday, when asked in general about being in another of his hitting binges. “I’m just preparing myself, going out there and trying to help us any way we can.”

  • Bear massacres ball: El Oso Blanco, aka Evan Gattis, hit a home run last night at Pittsburgh that was far, far greater than the sum of its measurements. A ninth-inning solo homer that had to be seen to be fully appreciated. A blast that left the bat like a bullet and climbed … and climbed … and climbed before turning back toward earth and colliding with the curved walkway ramp that sits beyond the left-field corner.

Some surprised fans must have been alarmed if they looked toward the field and saw the ball crash into the third-level façade as they were leaving the ballpark in the last inning of an 11-3 Braves rout. That’s a place where they can normally feel safe without having to worry about flying projectiles that leave the playing field.

Then again, this ball probably looked more like it was coming from space than the playing field.

El Oso Blanco hit it a long, long way, folks. His 19th home run of the season and his 40th in just 664 career at-bats was one of his most impressive, regardless of the measurement. PNC Park doesn’t give estimates, and ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, which I normally find to be accurate, said Gattis’ homer was a mere 423 feet, long for most folks but about 60 feet shy of the bomb he hit at Philly last season and well short of many others that he’s hit.

“That was a joke,” Justin Upton said, speaking not of the measurement but of how hard and far Gattis hit the ball. “He hammered it.”

A veteran Pittsburgh writer said Albert Pujols, nearly a decade ago, hit the only ball he’d seen go higher on that four-level ramp in left field since PNC Park opened, and that it was only a little higher up than the one Gattis crushed.

Home Run Tracker did give it an apex height of 131 feet, about as high as a 12-story building and higher than all but two homers hit in the majors in the past week. (Half of the other 22 homers Tuesday had an apex of less than 100 feet according to Home Run Tracker, and six were below 80 feet.)

“That was fun to see,” Jason Heyward said of Gattis’ epic homer. “We know what kind of pop he has. That was one of those, you didn’t know when it was going to come down or where. You know he’s got the pop, but it always amazes you when he catches ahold of one.”

Andrelton Simmons was watching on the clubhouse television, having left the game with a sore hip in the sixth inning.

“That was impressive,” Simmons said of Gattis’ blast. “That was fun. I was screaming as soon as he hit it. That’s fun when he catches one like that. Not a lot of people can do that. Not a lot of people can do what he does when he hits a ball.”

By the way, Gattis hit .225 (16-for-71) with one homer, six RBIs and 22 strikeouts  in 20 games from July 21 through Thursday, and the Braves were 5-15 in those games. In four games since – all Braves wins — he’s 5-for-15 with two homers, three RBIs and two strikeouts.

• J-Hey vs. Steel City: Heyward is 5-for-10 with a homer and five RBIs in the series, making him 11-for-24 (.458) with two homers, seven RBIs and five multi-hit games in the Braves’ past five games against the Pirates, all Atlanta wins.

In 25 career games against Pittsburgh, Heyward has a .343 average (35-for-102) with four homers, 16 RBIs, a .404 OBP and .520 slugging percentage. And at beautiful PNC Park, he’s hit .388 (19-for-49) with two homers and nine RBIs in 13 games.

• Tonight’s matchup: Should be a good matchup in the series finale, surging Braves lefty Alex Wood (9-9, 3.07) facing Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole (7-4, 3.78).

  Wood is 4-3 with a 2.73 ERA and .228 opponents’ average in 10 starts since moving back into the rotation, including 2-1 with a 1.71 ERA in his past four starts. He has 26 strikeouts and 12 walks in 26 1/3 innings over those four starts, while allowing six or fewer hits in six or more innings in each. Wood gave up one earned run in three of those games and two earned runs in the other.

Wood has a 1.93 ERA and .198 opponents’ average in seven road games (four starts) since the beginning of June, with one home run allowed in 28 innings. He’s never faced Pittsburgh, and the only Pirate with more than one official at-bat against him is Jayson Nix (0-for-3, three strikeouts)

Cole comes off the DL tonight to pitch for the first time since July 4, when he strained a right latissimus dorsi muscle in his back. He was 3-1 with a 2.01 ERA and 1.16 WHIP in four rehab starts for Triple-A Indianapolis.

Cole went 7-4 with a 3.78 ERA and .255 opponents’ average in 14 starts before he was DL’d, including 3-1 with a 3.56 ERA in seven starts at PNC Park.

Lefties have hit .258/.344/.390 against him this season, righties .253/.311/.410

He’s never faced Atlanta, and the only current Brave who’s seen him in the regular season is Emilio Bonifacio (0-for-2, one walk).

Let’s close with a great one written by Carole King and sung splendidly by Dusty Springfield, who was born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien. Look it up. You can hear it by clicking here.

 

“NO EASY WAY DOWN” by Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield

Dusty Springfield

Your toy balloon has sailed
In the sky, love
But now it must fall
To the ground
Now your sad eyes reveal
Just how badly you feel
‘Cause there is no easy way down

The view from the cliffs
Must have been exciting
And up to the peaks
You were bound
Now you’re stranded alone
And the past is unknown
And there is no easy way down

No it isn’t very easy
When you’re left on your own
No it isn’t very easy
When each road you take
Is one more mistake
There’s no-one to break your fall
And lead you back home, yeah

We all like to climb to the heights of love
Where our fantasy world can be found
But you must know in the end
When it’s time to descend
That there is no easy way down

You know you’re gonna find
There is no easy way down

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