Braves 2B Uggla intent of better start in 2012

When Dan Uggla arrived for spring training with the Atlanta

Braves, he felt at home.

The layout of the clubhouse was just as he remembered it. He

knew where to find his locker. All the guys seemed like old

friends.

”It’s a more comfortable feeling,” Uggla said, pulling on his

uniform. ”I know where my place is on this team. I already know

everybody respects me as a ballplayer, the way I go about my

business.

”It’s not like I’m trying to set the stage for something. It’s

already out there.”

The Braves can only hope that Uggla’s familiarity leads to a

much better start in 2012.

A year ago, after being acquired from the Marlins and signed to

a five-year, $62 million contract, Uggla pressed to make a good

first impression on his new team – and wound up making a mess of

the first half of the season.

He’d always been a slow starter anyway, but this was ridiculous.

By the Fourth of July, the Mendoza Line was some faraway fantasy

for the slugging infielder. Uggla’s average was a puny .173 –

downright embarrassing for any player, must less one of his

stature.

The next day, he started a hitting streak that lasted 33 games –

the longest in Atlanta history. Of course, after putting himself in

such a deep hole, Uggla was only able to raise his average to .233

by the end of the season. Still, he turned in a

more-than-respectable year, considering how it began, leading the

Braves with 36 homers and 82 RBIs, while extending his streak of

30-homer seasons to five in a row.

No other second baseman in baseball history has more than

three.

Still, there’s the matter of that hideous slump.

”What I went through last year, it’s hard to put a finger on

it,” Uggla said. ”I guess somebody wanted me to struggle for

three months. Maybe they were testing my character. Who knows?

That’s just the way it went down. Who’s to say why or how or what

happened.”

Actually, he’s just a player who doesn’t want to make

excuses.

It’s clear he put too much pressure on himself coming to a new

team. He knew the Braves expected big production in the middle of

their lineup. That’s why they made the trade. That’s why they

forked over that huge contract.

Uggla – who struggled mightily just to make it to the big

leagues – was determined to show everyone he wasn’t going to work

any less. Heck, he would work even harder. Then, when the outs

piled up, he pressed even harder. Before he knew it, Uggla’s season

had all the makings of a total bust.

”I would’ve loved to have hit 20 homers in April,” he said.

”For it to go the opposite way, it was one of those things I had

to battle through. But yeah, of course, there’s added pressure.

It’s just there. It’s automatically gonna be there. Whether you put

it on yourself or you don’t, it’s there. Because it’s a new team, a

new contract. But I’m not saying that’s why I (stunk) for the first

half. Because there’s gonna be pressure every year. In this game,

there’s always pressure.”

At least he never quit.

”We’ve all been up against adversity before, in some way, shape

or form,” Uggla said. ”As long as I did it the right way and

poured everything I had into trying to help my team win throughout

the season, then I would be able to look myself in the

mirror.”

Now, he’s ready to show everyone the real Dan Uggla – not just

the half-season model.

”I’m excited. I feel more confident coming into this year, just

from the simple fact I’ve already done it before,” he said. ”I’ve

prepared my body as good as I can prepare it. I’m ready to go. I

feel great. My swing feels good. My timing obviously feels better.

All the way around, it’s a more comfortable, more convenient

feeling coming into this year.”

Greg Walker, the Braves’ new hitting coach, isn’t concerned

about Uggla going through another extended slump.

He’s been too good for too long.

”There’s a lot of great numbers on the back of his baseball

card,” Walker said. ”I’ve just got to find out what he does that

makes him successful. I’m going to watch every swing this spring

and tell him what I think, but I’m going to let him be Dan Uggla.

I’m not going to try to change him.”

Manager Fredi Gonzalez knows Uggla is unlikely to ever win a

batting title. Not the way he swings at every pitch like it’s his

last. But the skipper is certainly counting on Uggla to improve on

last year’s average.

”I think he’ll pick up right where he left off at the end of

last year,” Gonzalez said. ”He’ll be a guy who hits .280, .290

with 30 homers and 90 RBIs. That’s fine. I expect him to be that

type of guy all year.”

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