Maholm battles, finishes strong in outing

TAMPA — Spring training has not offered the smoothest of sailing early on for Paul Maholm, the oft-overlooked arm in the Braves rotation heading into the 2013 season, but there are signs he’s still capable of recapturing last season’s career year.

Maholm ran up his pitch count in Atlanta’s 2-0 win over the New York Yankees on Tuesday, throwing out 81 pitches over four innings of work — never the best of signs in the first week of March. The command was not quite there, the groove not yet discovered. All things considered, though, four shutout innings remains a positive.

“I’m more of a rhythm pitcher, just trying to find the right rhythm. I think the pitch sequences were a lot better today than they were my last time out,” the 30-year-old said. “It’s just getting rid of the walks, that’s the biggest thing for me. Just trying to get some quick outs and not have to go six or seven pitches every at-bat.”

Maholm’s final line — four scoreless innings, three hits, four walks and two strikeouts — will certainly draw attention to the aforementioned base-on-balls total, but his performance falls in line with the gradual improvement most pitchers strive for during spring training. After a successful (and short) opening start against the Yankees on Feb. 23, Maholm was touched up by the Phillies, allowing five runs on six hits and two walks. His second spring start vs. the Yankees yielded a greater workload and worse bottom-line statistics, but he was given the opportunity to work his way out of jams.

“I thought he had a tough day today with the command, but he battled,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “We made some nice plays behind him. (Shortstop Tyler) Pastornicky made a nice play on a slow roller; Justin (Upton) in left field made a nice play on a line drive with (runners on) first and second with two outs to get him out of a jam.”

Maholm posted career bests in wins (13) and strikeouts (140) in 2012 after coming over from the Cubs in a midseason trade that also sent backup outfielder Reed Johnson to Atlanta. By peppering the strike zone at the second-highest rate on the team — his strike rate of 48 percent trailed only Tim Hudson among the Braves’ qualifying pitchers — Maholm relies on precision more than most.

Spring training is not the ideal setting for precision, though — at least not in the early going. Maholm likely just needs more time to rediscover that rhythm.

Scare tactics

Dan Uggla has faced his share of scary moments at the plate over the past six months.

During the sixth inning of Tuesday night’s matchup against the Yankees, Uggla was hit by a pitch on the back of the neck just below the hairline, one of baseball’s more cringe-inducing plays. Though he stayed upright and took his base, he was soon replaced by a pinch runner for further examination to his head and neck.

“I’m good. Luckily,” the second baseman later said in the locker room. “I never went black or anything like that.”

Added Gonzalez: “The good thing is that Bubba didn’t come out. Usually when he comes out between innings or comes out before the game’s over something major happened. So he never came out.”

Last season, Uggla was hit in the head by Miami’s Chad Gaudin and ended up missing a subsequent start. He said it was tough to differentiate the two incidents — after all, getting hit with a baseball is never a positive — but did mention that the Miami hit-by-pitch clipped his helmet, whereas Tuesday’s pitch from Yankees’ reliever Brandon Pinder caught him square in the neck.

Gonzalez later confirmed his medical staff took a look at Uggla and cleared him of any significant injury. There were no apparent marks or cuts left by the pitch.

Since joining Atlanta before the 2011, Uggla has missed just nine games, a fact that has turned him into the team’s de facto iron man and endeared him to fans. While it is still preseason baseball, his rugged approach to the game was clearly evident following Tuesday’s incident.

“I was more mad than anything,” Uggla said with a slight smile. “I know it wasn’t intentional, but anytime you get hit in the head or shoulder area your first instinct is to get a little angry. But you shake it off and take your base.”

Numbers game

0-for-11: This is a number Braves supporters will not want to see. A season removed from posting one of the league’s worst averages with runners in scoring position, Atlanta went 0-for-11 Tuesday night vs. the Yankees. The Braves scored their runs on an RBI groundout and a balk.