Bonus notes from our MLB on Fox broadcast of the Braves-Nationals game on Saturday . . .
Before each of the first two games of this series, Braves rookie catcher Evan Gattis sat quietly at his locker, wearing headphones, staring at his iPad and studying opposing pitchers.
“I look at all the pitchers getting hit,” Gattis said, laughing. “I don’t want to see ’em doing good.”
On Saturday, as teammates played cards and moved casually through the clubhouse, Gattis locked in on Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg, a pitcher he had never faced, not even in spring training.
And in Gattis’ second at-bat, he crushed a high 96-mph fastball from Strasburg for a two-run homer, breaking a scoreless tie in a game the Braves ended up winning, 3-1.
“I thought it was going to barely get into the bullpen, barely clear the wall,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “It went over the bullpen.”
Gattis’ bat is that quick. His body is that strong.
His winding journey to the majors, as recounted by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has been remarkable.
An offer of a baseball scholarship that he rejected from Texas A&M. Thirty days in drug rehabilitation. Three months in a halfway house. Odd jobs ranging from a ski-lift operator to a janitor. Visits to spiritual advisors. And then, a return to baseball, first at the University of Texas-Permian Basin, then with the Braves, who selected him in the 23rd round of the 2010 draft.
Gattis, 26, is a movie waiting to happen, at least until pitchers figure him out. But maybe they won’t figure him out so easily. Gattis has a short swing, a good eye, a game plan every at-bat.
“When you watch him hit, he always looks so strong,” Braves second baseman Dan Uggla says. “He’s just one of those guys where it looks like the bat never feels heavy to him.”
Gattis, in his third major league game, took over the cleanup spot for a World Series contender. After eight games he’s hitting .333 with four homers in 30 at-bats, and heaven knows what the Braves will do once Brian McCann returns from shoulder surgery, perhaps by the end of the month.
“I don’t know anyone in Major League Baseball who is not pulling for him. I know we all are,” said right-hander Tim Hudson, the winning pitcher on Saturday. “His story is pretty remarkable. He’s come through a lot.
“I hope when he catches me, I make him look as good as I can. He’s that kind of guy. He wants to learn. He’s eager to get better. And he has some talent. It’s not a fluke.”
Ask Strasburg. Ask any of those pitchers on Gattis’ iPad screen.
OH YES, HE ALSO CAN CATCH
Gattis made a veteran-like admission after the game, saying he called the wrong pitch when Hudson allowed a solo home run on his first pitch to Danny Espinosa with two outs in the fifth inning.
What should Hudson have thrown?
“In hindsight, maybe a fastball in, sinker away, something like that,” Gattis said. “Instead we went with a cutter, trying to get it on the hands, trying to get it off his barrel. And he got to it.”
Gonzalez praised both pitching coach Roger McDowell and backup catcher Gerald Laird for helping Gattis in his preparation. But the manager also noted that Gattis is not just a slugger who cares only about hitting, describing him as a dedicated catcher, too.
“We’re trying to make it as easy on him as we can,” Hudson said, smiling. “He doesn’t know anything about the hitters yet. But he understands how we like to pitch. He’s trying to pick our brains, understand what our strengths are, what we like to do in certain situations.
“I like him back there. He receives well. He blocks the ball well. He’s good around the plate. And he ain’t afraid to throw down a 2-0 changeup. He puts down fingers (for pitches) that ordinarily I might not necessarily (have) thrown.”
NATS’ ROTATION: HOW MUCH OF AN EDGE?
A scout who covers the NL East says the Braves’ rotation essentially is a collection of No. 3 starters. The Nats, on the other hand, feature top-of-the-rotation types in Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and lefty Gio Gonzalez, plus a fourth starter, lefty Ross Detwiler, who also may reach that status.
Hudson, though, didn’t look a like No. 3 on Saturday — actually, he looked like the old Tim Hudson, holding the Nats’ high-powered offense to five base-runners and one run in seven innings to improve to 2-0 with a 2.50 ERA.
A year ago, Hudson was coming off back surgery. This season he is coming off a normal offseason of training, and he said the difference is “like night and day.”
Braves people say Hudson’s stuff is crisper. The velocity on his pitches is indeed up slightly: His trademark sinker averaged 90 mph on Saturday, according to the PitchFX on Brooksbaseball.net. The improvement is no small feat for a pitcher who will turn 38 on July 14, but it reflects Hudson’s improved physical condition.
The Braves’ rotation isn’t exactly shabby — righty Kris Medlen performed like a No. 1 last season, and righty Brandon Beachy could return from Tommy John surgery around the All-Star break. But the truth is, the team might not need as much out of its starters, considering the strength of its lineup and bullpen.
NOT THAT HE NEEDS MUCH MOTIVATION, BUT . . .
Some of the Nationals feel that left fielder Bryce Harper plays with a chip on his shoulder, as if he has something to prove.
“To myself, yes,” Harper says. “To everyone else, I could care less.”
Another theory among certain Nats is that Harper is hell-bent on proving that he is better than the Angels’ Mike Trout.
“We made it to the playoffs last year — that’s all I’ll say about that one,” Harper said.
Trout’s club, the Angels, did not make the postseason in 2012 and is off to a 3-8 start, while the Nats are 7-4. Harper is among NL leaders in average (.372), homers (five) and RBI (10), while Trout is hitting .245 with no homers and one RBI.
NATS’ ZIMMERMAN: WELL-ARMED OR NOT?
Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, coming off offseason shoulder surgery, has made game-changing throwing errors in each of the past two games.
However, Zimmerman says his arm is 95 percent, “plenty good enough to play.”
Scouts expressed alarm at Zimmerman’s lower arm angle during spring training, but Zimmerman says he never threw over the top, and that “it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as it works.”
The silver lining, according to Zimmerman: He now performs shoulder exercises and long-tosses two or three times a week.
“If this (injury) had not happened, I never would have done those things,” he says.
SIX DEGREES OF UPTON
The Nationals’ trade for center fielder Denard Span last Nov. 29 indirectly stemmed from maneuverings involving both Upton brothers, first Justin, then B.J.
The Nats, according to a major league source, made a strong attempt to trade for Justin early in the offseason; their GM, Mike Rizzo, was the scouting director who drafted Justin for the Diamondbacks with the first pick in 2005.
The addition of Justin would have left the Nats with an outfield of Upton, Harper and Jayson Werth. But when the talks sputtered, Rizzo refocused on his original quest: to land a center fielder, ideally a left-handed hitter who could bat leadoff, and who rarely struck out.
Span, 29, fit that description perfectly, and the Braves’ signing of B.J. Upton to a five-year, $75.25 million contract scared the Nats off the free-agent market. Rizzo traded for Span the next day, acquiring him from the Twins for a highly regarded Class A right-hander, Alex Meyer.
Span is hitting .325, and the Nats control him for the next three seasons; he could earn $20.25 million over that period. Michael Bourn, another left-handed leadoff hitter, later signed with the Indians for $48 million for four years. And Bourn strikes out far more than Span.
“NINO” GROWS UP
Infielder Ramiro Pena had such a baby face when he was with the Yankees, his teammates called him, “Nino.” Many stadium security guards didn’t even believe he was a player, and frequently would ask for ID.
Pena, who turns 28 on July 18, thought he had shed his old image when he signed with the Braves in December. But in baseball, one can never escape his past.
Braves catcher Gerald Laird, whose younger brother Brandon was a minor league teammate of Pena’s with the Yankees, knows all about “Nino” and jokingly invokes the nickname on occasion. Pena, who now sports a goatee, says he quietly asks Laird to pipe down.
Kidding aside, Pena is proving quite a valuable addition for the Braves, who signed him to a one-year, $550,000 contract on Dec. 20. Pena raised his average to .412 with two hits in each of the first two games of this series, including a two-run, go-ahead homer in the 10th inning on Friday night.
Braves general manager Frank Wren says Pena had been on the team’s short list for the past few years, and that he contacted Yankees GM Brian Cashman more than once about a possible trade.
“We felt he was the perfect National League utility player that could play all over and switch-hit,” Wren says. “Guys like that get lost in the AL.”
NATS’ LaROCHE: THRILLED TO BE BACK
First baseman Adam LaRoche’s frustrating experience in free agency was well-documented: The Nats made him a qualifying offer, and other teams were reluctant to forfeit a draft pick for signing him.
LaRoche, after failing to land his desired three-year guarantee, returned to the Nats on a two-year, $24 million deal, and says he couldn’t be happier with how everything worked out.
“It would have taken the Nationals to say, ‘We don’t want you back for me not to come back,’” LaRoche says. “I was going to give them every opportunity.”
“I’ve been on horrible teams,” LaRoche says. “Teams when you’re so bad, the summer feels like it takes 12 months to get through. That was not worth it to me.”
BRAVES’ FRANCISCO: THE NEXT PANDA?
The Braves acquired third baseman Juan Francisco from the Reds at the start of last season and remain optimistic that he can develop into an impact player.
Francisco, who turns 26 on June 24, has never had more than 192 at-bats in a season, but one Braves official says, “There’s no reason he can’t be like the Panda in San Francisco.”
Like Gattis, Francisco excelled in winter ball, even hitting left-handed pitching better than he has in the majors. The 238-pounder, who’s hitting .273, has soft hands, a terrific arm — and yes, big power.