ATLANTA — Fredi Gonzalez opened up the series opener with the St. Louis Cardinals in a joking manner, playing the superstition card to end his team’s six-game losing streak. The Braves manager sat in a different spot in the dugout for his media availability. He said he took a different route back home from the stadium and drove around the river twice before pulling up to his front door. At least, it seemed like he was joking.
Still, those aren’t the only changes the fourth-year manager is making to put an end to a stretch defined by a stagnant offense that has scored just 10 runs over that 54-inning span, 99 runs overall (ranked 29th in baseball).
Gonzalez will trot out a substantially altered lineup on Monday night, most notably moving hot-hitting Justin Upton in the No. 2 spot and batting his pitcher (Aaron Harang) in the 8-hole a la The Tony La Russa Special.
"Whatever it takes," Gonzalez said.
With the big changes, Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman will remain in their respective Nos. 1 and 3 spots in the lineup, while B.J. Upton moves to the fifth spot behind Evan Gattis. At the bottom of the lineup, Ramiro Pena will bat behind Harang as a "second lead-off hitter" in the ninth spot and play second base — leaving starter Dan Uggla out of the lineup for the third time in the past seven games. Gonzalez was quick to iterate that Uggla is not necessarily benched, but is out of the lineup to St. Louis starter Shelby Miller’s splits against left-handed hitters (Uggla is a righty; Pena is a switch-hitter).
"It was a couple of different things," Gonzalez said of the moves. "Obviously, it’s a drastic move, right? Not very many people do it. I think Tony’s done it more than anybody has ever done it — Tony La Russa. And my reasoning behind it is: last year we moved Justin to the 2-hole, and we ran a couple of good long (offensive runs), No. 1. No. 2 is our best hitter right now arguably is Freddie Freeman. He gets a chance to hit third in the first inning and hopefully, if it all works out, he hits third or fourth the next time around. And basically that’s the reasoning behind it.
" … It’s a different leadoff hitter, and that ninth position may be a little bit more revolving depending on the matchup we have."
It’s that last comment that brought up the question: is this a one-game trial or could this be a regular look?
Short answer: Expect to see it more than once.
"I haven’t come up with a number saying, ‘We’re gonna do it for 10 games or I’m gonna do it for two weeks.’ But I think something this kinda drastic, you know, you gotta let it go for a little bit," Gonzalez said. "The times I’ve done it â¦ you can count on one hand. We’ve won some games with it. I remember, it doesn’t feel like, ‘Wow, that was the game-changer that we hit the pitcher eighth.’ Tony, like I said, Hall of Fame manager who I admire, he’s done it more than anybody else but he’s never done it in the postseason."
Gonzalez has experimented with putting a position player in the 9-hole before, most recently with Andrelton Simmons and Jose Constanza. The Braves are 6-2 when Gonzalez bats his pitcher in the eighth spot.
It’s also worth mentioning that Gonzalez first paired Heyward and Justin Upton at the top of the order in July of last season against the Cardinals, a lineup changed which lasted nearly the entirety of the Braves’ 14-game winning streak. With arguably the team’s three most dangerous hitters at the 1-2-3 spots in 2013, the Braves went 20-4. So were tweaks necessary and what other changes could be coming, not only on offense but through the pitching staff as well? Our writers discuss: