Three Cuts: Uggla’s slam powers Braves past Phillies

Dan Uggla hit his first grand slam since June 11, 2008, which also came against the Phillies.

Eric Hartline/Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Uggla headed to Philadelphia mired in the longest homer less drought of his career to open a season.

But in a wild, drama-filled final two innings, the Braves second baseman added his first and second HRs of the year, including his first grand slam in nearly five years to push Atlanta to a 9-6 win Monday night.

"I was getting nervous," Uggla said. "That’s a long stretch for me to go without a homer, especially to start the season. We’ve always got a lot of confidence. We know at any given moment we have a lot of guys that can go deep and change the game with one swing."

Uggla provided the biggest strike, but Evan Gattis added homers in the sixth and eighth innings and Andrelton Simmons added one of his own, following Gattis and Uggla in a string of back-to-back-to-back Atlanta blasts in the eighth.

On the heels of a power surge against the Nationals and Mets, the Braves now have 15 homers in their past nine games.

"We were patient in the last inning and put ourselves in a position to take back the lead and we did," Uggla said."

It’s all part of the blueprint for a team that after leading the National League in home runs and quality starts is doing it again. Atlanta tops the NL with 20 HRs and is tied for the best in MLB with 11 quality starts, the latest coming via Ervin Santana.

Here are three things we learned from the Braves’ fourth straight win, one that came minus closer Craig Kimbrel, who manager Fredi Gonzalez said is being considered day-to-day with soreness in his shoulder.

With a sixth-inning strikeout of Marlon Byrd, Ervin Santana made it 11 on the night, equalling a career-high and putting the final touch on a second impressive outing to start his tenure with the Braves.

Outside of a second-inning solo home run by Ryan Howard — which "ballooned" his ERA to 1.50 — Santana (2-0) dazzled, yielding four hits over six innings with two walks in 96 pitches.

Coupled with the three-hit, six-strikeout performance he put together in eight innings against the Mets on April 9, Santana is just the ninth Braves pitcher since 1963 and the first since Jorge Campillo in 2008 to have multiple starts in which he’s struck out at least six and threw 96 or less pitches.

The Howard homer was the first damage inflicted on Santana in an Atlanta uniform, but it’s how he dealt with it that spoke loudest as he fanned nine the rest of the way — including Howard twice — and allowed just one runner to get past second base.

Plus, the long ball is part of Santana’s makeup on the mound. Possessing an above average fly ball rate (40.6), only Bronson Arroyo (277) and Dan Haren (236) have yielded more HRs than Santana’s 230 since he made his debut in 2005. He’s also just two years removed from giving up a league-worst 39 in ’12 when he was with the Angels.

The bullpen couldn’t make Santana’s work stick, but he did manage to drop the Braves’ already MLB-best ERA among their starters to a scant 1.80.

The belief when Simmons signed his seven-year, $58 million extension was that the Braves were paying for all-world defense and an offensive skill set they hoped could catch up.

The 24-year-old’s recent surge is showing he could be close to doing just that.

In going 3 for 5, Simmons hit a second-inning triple off Roberto Hernandez to complete a 10-pitch at-bat, then got to B.J. Rosenberg for the third straight Atlanta homer in the eighth. That marked the shortstop’s second game with a triple and homer in as many days.

Last season, it took him 83 games to get multiple triples and this year he needed all of 11 games and he now has four extra-base hits in his last nine at-bats.

What’s most impressive about Simmons’ start, in which he’s hit .341/.356/.610 with a double and six RBI added to those triple and home-run totals, has been his plate discipline.

Through 46 plate appearances he has yet to strike out and he has 26 more chances than the Angels’ J.B. Shuck, who is the only other player with at least 15 trips to the plate and zero K’s. During Monday’s win, Simmons saw 22 pitches in his three at-bats, a whopping 18.6 percent of those Hernandez threw.

It’s a restraint that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Simmons struck out just twice last July and 23 times in all after the All-Star break and had a 8.4 strikeout rate that stood out on amid a lineup that fanned a franchise-record 1,384 times.

Whether this offensive consistency holds remains to be seen, but given that Simmons’ early success echoes what he was doing late last year, he may simply be progressing faster than expected.

Following a walk to lead off the third inning, Jason Heyward swiped second, marking his fourth steal of the year, which already doubles his output from a year ago.

There’s an aggression that’s evident with the Braves on the base paths, and much of the credit goes to Doug Dascenzo.

The October decision to reassign third-base coach Brian Snitker as Triple-A Gwinnett manager in favor of Dascenzo came with general manager Frank Wren’s explanation that "We just didn’t have (base running and outfield play) covered as we as we would have liked."

Keep in mind, the Braves have a Gold Glove-winning right fielder in Jason Heyward, who had 15 defensive runs in ’13; center fielder B.J. Upton had a 2.7 defensive WAR and left fielder Justin Upton’s RZR (.882) is above average — so Dascenzo’s impact there could only go so far. The emphasis with this switch was squarely on the base running and the numbers underscored a need for change.

Atlanta had 64 steals, 24th in the majors, despite four players — Heyward, Upton, Justin Upton and Jordan Schafer — who had seasons of more than 20 during their careers.

Monday, the Braves had two in the first three innings, with B.J. Upton’s second coming in the first frame before adding another in the seventh, and pushed their season total to nine in 13 games. That puts Atlanta on pace for 112 in the season, which is above the league average of 101 the past five seasons, a clear sign that the Braves are already benefitting from the change at third-base coach.