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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

J-Up enters MVP discussion, helps revive Braves offense

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  CINCINNATI – His performance in the second half has pushed Justin Upton into legitimate top-five National League MVP consideration. More importantly, it’s recently helped resuscitate the Braves offense and keep them in contention for at least a wild-card spot.

But there’s not much  J-Up or J-Hey or FreddieFree or anyone else in a Braves uniform can do to stop the streaking Nationals from pulling away in the National League East standings, at least not until the Braves face them again Sept. 8-10 in Washington and Sept. 15-17 in Atlanta.

Justin Upton has 18 RBIs during a 12-game hitting streak, and is second in the NL with 84 RBIs for the season. He's entered the MVP discussion with his second-half performance.

Justin Upton has 18 RBIs during a 12-game hitting streak, and is second in the NL with 84 RBIs for the season. He’s entered the MVP discussion with his second-half performance.

Those are the only six head-to-head matchups left for the Braves, who have a 9-4 record against the Nats this season but trail them by seven games entering Friday’s. The Nationals lost two of three in Atlanta a couple of weeks ago and haven’t lost since, reeling off a drama-filled 10-game winning streak that’s matched their franchise best.

How about these stats: The Nats are 10-0 with a 1.82 ERA, 46 runs, 10 homers and seven one-run wins in their streak, including a ridiculous five walk-off wins in their past six games. I mean, c’mon.

Meanwhile, the Braves rebounded from their disasterous 0-8, 18-total-run-scored West Coast trip to go 9-5 with a 2.96 ERA and 65 runs scored in their past 14 games, including 6-1 with a 2.15 ERA, .277 batting average, 11 homers and 43 runs in their past seven.

“Yeah, we’ve hit on all cylinders for four out of the past five games,” Upton said after Thursday’s 8-0 series-opening win against the Reds. “We faced a tough customer yesterday (Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole on Wednesday), but today we came out and put up some runs.”

While the offensive improvement and team resurgence hasn’t helped them gain any ground on the Nats, it’s at least served to put the Braves squarely in the middle of the wild-card race, only one game behind the Giants for the second wild-card spot entering Friday, and 1 ½ games  ahead of the struggling Pirates.

So, we’ll see.

If the offense can keep doing its part, the Braves have a real good chance of getting a wild-card berth, and don’t completely write off the NL East race just yet. It’s not likely they’ll catch the Nats, who’ve finally started to play up their potential and surely got a big boost to their confidence and chemistry and all that with their energizing 10-game streak.

But as long as the Braves have those six head-to-head matchups, and if they can trim a game or two off that seven-game deficit in the next week or so, there’s a chance for Atlanta to reel in the Nats. Not a good chance, obviously. But a chance.

And as long as the Braves keep them close, there’s a better chance that the Nats will at least help drag them in their wake into the postseason as a wild card. Once you’re in the tournament, absolutely anything can happen. But you’ve got to get there.

Which brings us back to J-Up and the original point about him being a legit top-five National League MVP candidate if he keeps up his recent pace, though I can’t see him overtaking Giancarlo Stanton or Clayton Kershaw, and probably not Andrew McCutchen.

Upton is 16-for-40 (.400) during a 12-game hitting streak with four homers, 18 RBIs, a .500 OBP and a .750 slugging percentage. In 42 games since July 4, he’s hit .327 (49-for-150) with 13 doubles, eight homers, 37 RBIs, 23 walks, a .408 OBP and a .573 slugging percentage.

He has nine RBIs in his past three games to raise his season total to 84, second in the NL behind Stanton (89). Upton leads the NL with 21 RBIs in August, second in the majors to Houston’s Chris Carter (23).

“You know what he’s doing?” Gonzalez said after Thursday’s game, when Upton had two hits including a bases-loaded, two-run single through the left side of the infield, plus a sac fly and a walk. “He’s taking advantage of situations. He came up with (runners on) second and third, and instead of trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark he put the ball in play with a productive out, got a sac fly. He’s done that a few times this road trip. Keeping within himself. That’s a good sign.”

I mentioned to Upton what Gonzalez had said in the manager’s postgame comments.

“Just trying to get one of them at a time, that’s the goal,” Upton replied. “If we can plate one of those runs, I think we’re in good shape. So that’t the mentality all of us have.”

As for the other two members of the surging threesome leading the Braves’ offense:

–  Jason Heyward has  hit .292 with a .370 OBP, .416 slugging percentage and 20 extra-base hits (five homers) in 68 games since the beginning of June, including .352 (45-for-128) with 10 extra-base hits, 19 RBIs, 24 runs and a .410 OBP and .469 slugging percentage in his past 34 games.

– Freddie Freeman has hit exactly .400 (26-for-65) with a .500 OBP and .600 slugging percentage in his past 18 games, with seven doubles, two homers, 12 walks, three HBPs in that stretch.

• Reversal of fortunes: Reliever James Russell has had a complete turnaround since Gonzalez began using him in full innings after initially using him as a traditional lefty specialist.

After being charged with three hits and three runs over a three-appearance span in which he recorded a total of two outs, Russell has allowed just one hit (no walks) in 6 1/3 scoreless innings over his past five appearances, including consecutive two-inning hitless appearances Monday at Pittsburgh and Wednesday at Cincinnati.

For the season, lefty batters have  hit .303 (23-for-76) with three homers and a .500 slugging percentage against him, while right-handed batters have hit .104 (8-for-77) with no homers and a .117 slugging percentage against the veteran lefty. Cincinnati hitters are 2-for-25 this season against Russell, who faced them seven times with the Cubs before being traded to Atlanta on July 31.

• Simba clearly likes red: Andrelton Simmons has four homers in just 11 games (44 at-bats) against the Reds, matching the career-best four homers he also has against Washington (in 35 games and 121 at-bats) and against Philly  (in 35 games and 133 at-bats).

He homered Tuesday and has hit .364 (16-for-44) in his career against the Reds with eight extra-base hits, seven RBIs and a .727 slugging percentage against the Reds. That includes a .500 average (9-for-18) with two doubles, three homers and six RBIs in four games in the cozy confines at Cincinnati.

“I don’t know, it definitely feels a little comfortable,” Simmons said of Great American Ball Park. “I feel hot whenever I’m playing here. But I’ve been feeling pretty comfortably lately overall, and especially today, actually. I felt pretty good.”

The only other road ballpark where he’s hit more than two homers is Philly’s Citizens Bank Park, where Simmons has four homers in 20 games.

• Friday’s matchup: It’ll be Mike Minor (5-8, 5.16) trying to continue recent progress against Reds righty Mat Latos (4-3, 3.10).

Minor is 1-1 with a 3.29 ERA and .240 opponents’ average and two homers allowed in his past two starts, with 14 strikeouts and three walks in 13 2/3 innings. This after going 2-3 with a 7.33 ERA and .357 opponents’ average and 12 homers allowed in his previous 10 starts, with 47 strikeouts and 17 walks in 54 innings.

The Braves skipped his turn in the rotation after that alarming 10-start slump, to give him time to regroup and work on making a few adjustments including his grip on some pitches.

Mike Minor will try to continue his recent progress when he face the Reds in a hitter-friendly ballpark where he once gave up four homers in a game.

Mike Minor will try to continue his recent progress when he face the Reds in a hitter-friendly ballpark where he once gave up four homers in a game.

His past two starts were at Turner Field. In his past six road starts, Minor is 1-2 with a 7.20 ERA, .324 opponents’ average and six homers allowed in 35 innings. It’s been three weeks since he made a road start, an Aug. 1 loss at San Diego in which he gave up nine hits, five runs and two homers  in five innings.

Minor is 2-1 with a 3.15 ERA in three starts against the Reds, including 1-1 with a 3.46 ERA in two disparate starts at Great American Ball Park. He allowed four runs and five hits including four homers in six innings of a May 2012 loss at Cincinnati, then limited the Reds to four hits and one run on a homer in seven innings of a May 2013 win at their park.

Minor has allowed a .372/.423/.543 slash line in 94 at-bats vs. lefties, and .287/.334/.493 in 363 ABs vs. righties. Oddly enough, given that line, he has only two homers allowed by lefties compared to 18 by righties.

On first pitches, hitters are 27-for-61 (.443) against Minor with 10 extra-base hits (three homers) and a .705 slugging percentage.

The only healthy Reds hitter who’s done much damage against him is Zack Cozart, who’s 4-for-10 with two homers against Minor. No other active Red has a homer against the lefty, and Ryan Ludwick (2-for-6) is the only one with more than one hit. Todd Frazier is 0-for-8 with five strikeouts against him, Brandon Phillips is 1-for-8, and Devin Mesoraco is 0-for-5.

Latos is 4-3 with a 2.97 ERA and .200 opponents’ average in his past 10 starts, including 2-0 with a 2.70 ERA in four August starts. He lasted seven or more innings seven times  in nine starts before pitching five innings Sunday at Colorado, where he gave up eight hits, three runs and three walks and got no decision in a Cincy loss.

Against the Braves, Latos is 3-3 with a 3.45 ERA in seven starts. Originally a Padre, he had a 2.45 ERA and .228 opponents’ average in six starts against the Braves before getting whacked for nine hits and six runs in four innings on July 11, 2013, the only time he’s faced them since 2012.

  Latos has a 2.31 ERA and one homer allowed in 39 innings over six road starts, and a 3.89 ERA and four homers allowed in 39 1/3 innings of six home starts. You might have heard, this ballpark, aka Great American Small Park, is extremely hitter-friendly.

Lefties are batting just .193 in 140 at-bats with a .224 OBP against Latos, and righties haven’t fare a lot better at .222 in 144 at-bats, but do have a .304 OBP and more than twice as many walks as lefties have against him.

Against Latos, Freeman is 7-for-12, J. Upton is 6-for-14 with a homer, Chris Johnson is 7-for-17 with a homer, Heyward is 4-for-10, and Emilio Bonifacio is 3-for-4. B.J. Upton is 0-for-5 with four strikeouts against him.

• The excellent band The National is based in Brooklyn now, but started here in Cincinnati. Every album they’ve made has been good or great. I love this song off the most recent one.

“I NEED MY GIRL” by The National

The National

The National

I am good, I am grounded
Davy says that I look taller
I can’t get my head around it
I keep feeling smaller and smaller
I need my girl
I need my girl

Remember when you lost your shit and
Drove the car into the garden
You got out and said I’m sorry
To the vines and no one saw it
I need my girl
I need my girl

I’m under the gun again
I know I was a 45 percenter then
I know I was a lot of things
But I am good, I am grounded
Davy says that I look taller
I can’t get my head around it
I keep feeling smaller and smaller
I need my girl
I need my girl

There’s some things that I should never
Laugh about in front of family
In a week we’ll be together
Try to call you when I’m landed
I need my girl
I need my girl

Remember when you said I’m sorry
To the vines and no one saw it
I’ll try to call you from the party
It’s full of punks and cannonballers
I need my girl
I need my girl

I’m under the gun again
I know I was a 45 percenter then
I know I was a lot of things
But I am good, I am grounded
Davy says that I look taller
I can’t get my head around it
I keep feeling smaller and smaller
I keep feeling smaller and smaller
I keep feeling smaller and smaller

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