Three Cuts: Simmons thriving in leadoff role

ATLANTA – Taking three cuts after the Braves’ 4-1 win over the Cubs at Turner Field on Friday night.

1. Yes, He Is A Leadoff Hitter

The knock on Andrelton Simmons entering his first season atop the order was that he wasn’t a prototypical leadoff man.

Last season the shortstop drew just 12 walks in 49 games, possessing a 6.6 rate that ranked 13th on the Braves. He had one stolen base, which was 41 less than the guy he was replacing atop the order in Michael Bourn, and the 3.77 pitches Simmons saw per plate appearance were next-to-last among all MLB players with at least 130 at-bats.

But through four games Simmons is proving adept at his new role, a point he drove home in the third inning of Friday night’s win.

Simmons drew a five-pitch walk off Scott Feldman to open the third, then with Justin Upton at the plate, he stole his first base of the year, sliding head first to get under the tag by shortstop Starlin Castro. Simmons then displayed some heads-up base running as he reached third on a wild pitch. He would be driven home off a sacrifice fly by Upton.

“It felt good for that pitch, so I took off,” Simmons said. “Fortunately, I got there safe and (then the) wild pitch and (Upton) did the job with the sac fly.”

Said manager Fredi Gonzalez: “It’s nice to have that in your back pocket in case you run into a situation where you can’t hit balls out of the ballpark, you can create it with your legs a little bit.”

The stolen base was key as Simmons has had just one season in his professional career when he had more than 18, 26 in 2010 with high-A Lynchburg, and even that year he was caught on 18 of his 44 attempts. But most impressive is the amount of pitches Simmons is seeing.

He entered Friday in the top 20 in the National League with 3.77 pitches per at-bat and he continued to do his part to wear down the Cubs pitching with plate appearances of four, five, four, two and four pitches.

2. One Upton Up, One Upton Down

In Monday’s season opener, it was Freddie Freeman, who took the Phillies’ Cole Hamels 425 feet and Tuesday, Justin Upton connected on a 410-foot homer off Roy Halladay.

Atlanta made it three out of four games with a home run in the first inning as Upton delivered again, parking a Scott Feldman sinker to right field.  It was his third HR of the season in his fourth game in a Braves uniform and it marked the second time he’s smacked three home runs in four games or less since he did it in three games from Sept. 7-9, 2011.

Upton stands as the only player on the roster with a hit in each contest. In all, he’s 4-for-13 (.308) with five RBI and a pair of walks.

“It’s even fun watching him in the cage,” Simmons said. “You just watch and try to pick up stuff from him. He’s really talented and he has a nice swing; everything is nice, smooth. He’s going to do this all year.”

But while his younger brother is thriving, B.J. Upton is still searching for his first hit 14 at-bats into the young season. He 0-for-3 Friday and was hit by a pitch when a Feldman sinker smacked him in the hand in the fifth, though Upton did follow it up with his first stolen base of the year.

“He’s coming along,” Gonzalez said. “You see the at-bats, the swings he’s getting there. … Everyone gets into one of these things, whether it’s in July, August, all those guys who win batting titles they go in a little slump somewhere down the line. It just so happens B.J.’s is the four games of the season.”

This is the first time that Upton has gone four games without a hit since Aug. 20-26, 2011, though it’s worth mentioning that he did end that skid with a home run.

3. Minor Keeps Riding Wave of ’12 Success

Mike Minor was a different pitcher over the second half of last season.

After going 4-6 with a 6.20 ERA in his first 15 starts, Minor went 7-4 with a 2.20 ERA and 0.86 WHIP over his last 15 outings. His spring figures, he had a 6.26 ERA and 1.87 WHIP, may have led to fears that he would revert to the early ’12 Minor – but he put those notions to rest against the Cubs.

“I’m not going to say I’m going to have a game like this every time, but I had the confidence going into the season that I was going to attack the hitters like I did last year,” Minor said.

Minor scattered five hits over 7 1/3 innings, striking out seven with zero walks and allowed Chicago’s only run on a home run to Scott Hairston in the fifth inning, a slider in that Minor said got away from him.   

“We saw him give up that solo home run and he never even wavered after that,” Gonzalez said. “He came right back and got out of the inning. … We score a couple runs and he shuts them down. He did a great job, a fantastic job, really.”