Three Cuts: Braves jump on Pirates early to extend winning streak

Following a sweep of a club that had the best record in baseball, the Braves opened a 10-game road trip by beating the National League’s best home team.

Atlanta set the tone early with a 6-0 first-inning that was fueled by Jason Heyward and Andrelton Simmons home runs en route to sinking the Pirates 7-3 Monday.

That victory, added to claiming three straight over the A’s, gives the Braves their longest winning streak since taking nine straight from June 27-July 5.

Here are three thoughts from the Braves’ series-opening win in Pittsburgh.

Heyward led off with a home run off Vance Worley, then Simmons followed with another. It was the first time the Braves had led of a game with back-to-back HRs since Martin Prado and Nate McLouth on May 14, 2011 — and it was just the beginning for Atlanta’s suddenly potent offense.

The first four Braves reached safely, and five of six, as a Freddie Freeman walk and a single by Justin Upton were followed by an RBI base hit from Chris Johnson. Gerald Laird gave Atlanta a 4-0 lead with a ground ball single, then Ervin Santana added an RBI and the Braves got another run off a throwing error by Neil Walker to make it 6-0.

It was Atlanta’s second-most prolific inning of the season, just missing their seven-run, first-inning in a 13-10 win at Colorado on June 10, and equaling the six runs they had two other times (July 27 vs. the Padres and July 12 against the Cubs).

Next Up: Braves at Pirates

For an offense which had looked anything but prolific post All-Star break — the Braves scored 2.6 runs per game from July 29-Aug. 14, well belong an average that is 29th in the majors, and in that span they would go 3-12 — they have been breaking out of their rut.

Granted, after that early explosion the bats weren’t nearly as potent as they scored just one run after the first. But they did account for 10 of their 15 hits from the first and over the last four games, the Braves have averaged 5.25 runs and 9.5 hits and gone 4-0. During that run they’ve hit eight home runs, key for this ball club, which is now 44-18 when it homers and nine games below .500 (31-42) when it doesn’t.

Adding to that home run barrage would seem daunting as the series continues. Tuesday’s starter, Francisco Liriano, is allowing 0.87 per nine innings, and Wednesday Gerrit Cole (0.84) is on the mound. But keep in mind Worley entered Monday when a better HR/9 then both of them at 0.79 and had given up two homers in his last five outings (both on Aug. 13 vs. the Tigers).

With a 5-0 record and 2.70 ERA in six starts since the All-Star break, a span that saw him allow just one homer in 40 innings, Ervin Santana has looked strong of late.

While he got the win Tuesday — thanks to that aforementioned first-inning from the Braves’ bats — this amounted to the shakiest of Santana’s (13-6) outings in 2 1/2 months.

He lasted just 5 1/3 innings, his shortest start since May 26 against the Red Sox and gave up three home runs, including two to Starling Marte. That’s a season high and as many deep balls as Santana had allowed in his last 11 starts combined.

Santana gave up nine hits in all, the most since May 21, and exited one batter after yielding back-to-back doubles to Marte and Travis Snider with the Pirates having already cut the Braves’ lead in half at 6-3.

It was the first time Santana had faced Pittsburgh in his 10-year career, but he has a history against a number of Pirates, including Snider (11 previous plate appearance) and Russell Martin (23), who walked twice.

An un-Santana-like night may have been surprising, but the that the Braves continued their offensive surge with him on the mound shouldn’t be. While they’ve struggled to score for most of the season, Santana is getting backed by 4.4 runs per game, second-highest among Atlanta starters behind Mike Minor (4.5).

You can look at Chris Johnson’s season in two different ways.

The first is to say that after hitting 394/.321/.358 last season, the Johnson that currently possesses a 276/.300/.386 slash line and more strikeouts (126) than a year ago (116).

He has an average that’s 12th among MLB third basemen and the OBP is 24th, OK, but he’s below replacement level offensively with a minus-4.9 WAR.

But the reason why the real Chris Johnson may be closer to what we saw last year is that the BABIP is still elevated. He’s at .362 after a franchise-record .394 last year, and that current figure is sixth in the majors and fourth in the NL.

That BABIP hasn’t changed much either during his current hot streak, as Johnson is hitting .297 since July 12, going 36 for 121 and has nine multi-hit nights during that run. He’s also pushed his season line to .277/.301/.386.

The strikeouts remain a problem, as he amassed two more Monday and has a 26.2 K rate on the season (it bumps up to 28.3 in the last 30 games). But of late Johnson looks much more like the player the Braves locked up with a three-year, $23.5 million extension, and not the one that had some questioning the third baseman’s staying power.