MLB Insiders: Atlanta Braves

A.J. Burnett

The Pirates open a four-game series in Atlanta on Friday night. Right-hander A.J. Burnett will be on the hill for the Bucs. The Braves will start right-hander Tommy Hanson.

The Atlanta Braves' offense is back in gear following the team's worst start in 24 years.

The Pittsburgh Pirates' pitching staff could change that.

Atlanta looks to match the best seven-game start in Turner Field's 15-year history Friday night when these clubs begin a four-game series.

Since batting .165 with 10 runs during an 0-4 start - the club's worst since going 0-10 in 1988 - the Braves (12-7) have hit .284 while averaging 6.1 runs.

Michael Bourn, Dan Uggla and reigning NL player of the week Freddie Freeman combined to hit .390 (32 for 82) with four homers and 14 RBIs on a 5-2 trip that ended with Wednesday's 4-2 victory over Los Angeles.

Atlanta will look to continue that momentum as it begins a seven-game homestand. The Braves, who last opened 6-1 at Turner Field during its inaugural 1997 season, have won 44 of the last 63 at home against the Pirates (8-10).

Pittsburgh begins its seven-game trip ranked toward the bottom of the majors with a .221 batting average and 41 runs. The Pirates set a major league mark with their 18th game to start a season in which neither team scored more than five runs after splitting a doubleheader against Colorado on Wednesday.

While manager Clint Hurdle is waiting for more production from his lineup, he couldn't ask for more from the pitching staff, which is among the NL's best with a 2.58 ERA.

Friday's scheduled starter A.J. Burnett is well on his way to becoming the ace of that group after throwing seven innings of three-hit ball in his Pirates debut Saturday, a 2-0 victory over St. Louis.

The 35-year-old right-hander fractured his right orbital bone during a bunting drill Feb. 29 and had surgery two days later.

It was a nice return to the NL after three seasons with Toronto and three with New York, but pitching at Turner Field can't give Burnett much confidence. He is 1-7 with a 5.08 ERA in 11 starts there.

The Braves hope Tommy Hanson (2-2, 3.38) can build on his best start of the season after he struck out seven over seven innings and set down the last 13 batters he faced in a 3-2 win over Arizona on Saturday.

The right-hander is 0-1 with a 3.75 ERA in two starts against the Pirates.

"Martin Prado gave me the best birthday present ever," third baseman Chipper Jones said Tuesday night, on his 40th birthday. Prado fought off pitch after pitch in the top of the ninth inning, then had delivered a triple that drove in the winning run.

That's the most obvious evidence of the work of hitting coach Greg Walker and his assistant, Scott Fletcher. The Braves are tougher outs this year, and better at situational hitting, which is how they beat the Dodgers on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Prado has been having good at-bats but hitting into some tough luck, so Tuesday's triple was pretty sweet. But he's also been in a groove at times, as when he strung together five straight games with at least one RBI from April 17-22.

A constant worrier, Prado has become less anxious as leadoff hitter Michael Bourn has gotten hot. Bourn had only three hits and three walks in the Braves' first six games. In contrast, in five consecutive games on the trip that ended Wednesday, Bourn was on base in the first inning.

Prado might be able to relax even more now that third baseman Juan Francisco is starting to hit, too. Although Francisco was 0-for-1 Wednesday as a pinch hitter, he was batting .300 (3-for-10) to that point in the six-game trip.

If his bat and his fielding become steadier, that means Prado can stay in left field on days when Jones is out of the lineup, instead of moving to the infield to play third base.

The constant changing of positions has bothered Prado in the past, because he puts so much pressure on himself to prove to the organization that he can play both positions effectively.

Notes, Quotes

LHP Jonny Venters has struck out the last seven batters he's faced, from Wednesday's victory over the Dodgers back to the Diamondbacks' series. And thanks to some of the starters beginning to pitch deeper than five innings, he is not being over-used to this point in the season.

RHP Brandon Beachy's homer-less streak ended at 42 2/3 innings when he gave up one to Matt Kemp in sixth inning Wednesday. The streak dated to the second inning last Sept. 7, when Raul Ibanez got him.

CF Michael Bourn's streak of leading off a game by getting on base ended at five Wednesday. But he finished the trip batting .407 (11-for-27) in three games against the Diamondbacks and three against the Dodgers.

RF Jason Heyward hit one of five consecutive ninth inning singles that sent the Braves to a 4-2 victory over the Dodgers on Wednesday. After flailing in his first three at-bats, he hit one inside-out to get on base and drive in the Braves' insurance run.

2B Dan Uggla keeps making bad, low throws to first that are saved only by the ability of 1B Freddie Freeman to stretch every which way. Uggla has been charged with five errors in 19 games. His defense appears to translate to his offense. His clean fielding game Wednesday came in conjunction with two RBI on a 2-for-3 night with a walk.

RHP Anthony Varvaro, who began the season on the disabled list due to a right pectoral strain, was activated from his rehab assignment with Class AAA Gwinnett and optioned to the same team. Varvaro, 27, hadn't allowed a run through three relief appearances for Gwinnett.

By The Numbers: 5—Consecutive games in which INF/OF Martin Prado had at least one RBI, April 17-22.

Quote To Note: "We have a young, young staff. He's going to show them how to get it done." —C David Ross, on the return of RHP Tim Hudson to the rotation this weekend.

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