Three Hits: Upton homers can’t save Braves from dropping Mets series

Braves outfielder Justin Upton logged his seventh career multi-homer game in a 6-4 loss against the New York Mets on Thursday.

Kevin Liles

ATLANTA — Following series wins against the Brewers and Nationals to start the season, the Atlanta Braves could not keep the streak going against the New York Mets, dropping Thursday night’s rubber match 6-4 despite the offensive exploits of Justin Upton and Freddie Freeman. Here are three observations from the game:

On the heels of Ervin Santana’s masterful Braves debut, the franchise’s rotation, battered by preseason injuries and still in flux, featured some of the best numbers in baseball through its first eight starts. They allowed just eight runs to cross the plate over that span (1.37 ERA) and not a single starter had allowed more than two runners to cross home plate in a start.

That all changed on Thursday night. It was bound to end at some point.

Rookie David Hale struggled against a lackluster Mets lineup, failing to make it into the fifth inning after allowing four runs and 10 baserunners. The most problematic aspect of his outing came in the control department, where he walked five New York batters — he had allowed just three walks in his three career starts entering the game — who, in turn, punished the Braves on the basepaths. Unlike the team’s previous eight games, pitching kept Atlanta behind the 8-ball, even as it’s offense opened up a little in the early going.

"Right off from the very beginning, David didn’t give us a solid outing, really," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think he was really struggling with his mechanics a little bit. Seemed like the majority of the walks were to left-handed hitters."

Following the loss, Hale said he felt good during his warmup bullpen session, but that once he was on the mound his location was not where it needed to be. Of his 90 pitches, only 51 went for strikes — that makes life difficult for a control pitcher.

"Just one of those days where I didn’t have command of the fastball at all, and I had to battle the entire time. It’s tough to do that throughout the entire game," Hale said. "I was just leaving my sinker out away. It is frustrating when it’s such a simple pitch and one that’s supposed to be my bread and butter is missing. It’s just one of those days. It happens, I guess."

The Braves’ backup (or third-string) catcher, Ryan Doumit, caught Hale for the first time in a major league game and he concurred with his pitcher’s assessment: the sinker command needs to be there for Hale to be the guy that allowed just one earned run in 16 career innings.

"It’s just the story of baseball. Minor adjustment. I mean, he’s got tremendous stuff. That sinker, if he can locate it and throw it for a strike, it’s tough to elevate something like that. You’ll see a lot of guys beat it into the ground," Doumit said. "And I think that he’ll even admit it, that he didn’t have his best sinker tonight. But it’s on, he’s gonna be pretty good."

With the less-than-mediocre outing, the Braves’ staff ERA jumps to 1.74 heading into the Nationals series — still the best mark in baseball.

There was a deja vu feel to the Braves right fielder’s mammoth home run in the third inning, one that measured at 477 feet and caused Mets starter Jenrry Mejia to throw his glove in disgust. It felt like April 2013.

Justin Upton pieced together one of his best games in a Braves uniform against Mejia, finishing up 3 for 4 with two home runs and three RBI. It was the seventh multi-homer game of his career, his fifth and sixth career shots off a Mets pitcher. It was a necessary step for a guy who was experiencing a very different April this time around.

"It’s a game of adjustments. It’s day-to-day. Every day you’re trying to find that timing, find what works for you. Last night was different than tonight, but tonight I felt good," said Upton, who did not homered in his first 33 plate appearances in 2014. "It’s always nice to drive the ball the other way and I got a few pitches tonight."

He can thank Mejia for that. But not only did he punish the Mets’ 24-year-old to the point of frustration, he also kept Atlanta alive as Hale went through his control issues. When Atlanta fell behind in the first inning, he tied it in the second. When the Mets reclaimed the lead (3-1) in the third, he, along with Freeman (2 for 4, 1 RBI), pushed the Braves ahead with that 477-footer that everyone in the stadium knew was gone from the moment it left the bat.

It wasn’t enough to give the Braves the lead for good, but it was enough to push Upton’s numbers out of the basement. He’s now hitting .265/.324/.441 for a good 114 weighted runs created; it’s not last April, but it’s still early.

"That’s really good. That’s a really good sign," Gonzalez said. "I thought his last at-bat yesterday, if you’ll remember he hit that line drive to center field, you started seeing that. You started seeing some good at-bats being put together. That’s encouraging."

The obvious key for the Braves, or any offense, will be to get a little more consistency in the lineup top to bottom, from the first inning to the ninth. Atlanta’s overall offensive numbers weren’t terrible, but they wrapped up the loss with four straight 1-2-3 frames and, as Upton illustrated, it’s a workload that tends to fall on the shoulders of one or two players on a night-to-night basis. Most nights it is Freeman. Jason Heyward and Chris Johnson have helped at times along the way. But until the rest of the lineup catches up — Atlanta is getting some of MLB’s worst production out of spots Nos. 6, 7 and 8 and B.J. Upton has not helped much in the 2-hole (more on that in a minute) — there are going to be more lopsided box scores to come.

"It’s early in the season. A lot of ball to be played. We want to have those times when the entire offense is clicking, because it is dangerous when we can all be on the same page and everybody’s felling pretty good," Upton said. "We look forward to those days, but right now we have to grind out wins any way we can. If it’s on one guy’s back — or two guys’ — those are things we are going to have to deal with until things start clicking."

Chipper Jones just can’t help himself.

"When it comes to hitting, it’s hard for me to keep quiet," said the Braves’ former third baseman, a guy who just so happens to have hit .303/.401/.529 and 468 home runs over 19 seasons in Atlanta. "As if you couldn’t tell already."

So it was Jones who arrived at Turner Field on Thursday afternoon, at the request of Gonzalez, to be around the clubhouse and visit with some of his former teammates. And then he started talking hitting, specifically with struggling center fielder B.J. Upton. Jones had some ideas about the 29-year-old’s swing, and by mid-afternoon the two were standing on the field, bats in hands, talking about hinges and swing planes.

"I’m big on talking about hinges — and what I mean hinges, I’m talking about knees, hips, shoulders, elbows and wrists. He’s a got a little extra hinge with his hands that is taking his bat past perpendicular. And whenever you do that, your back elbow comes up, and in order to get the bat back to swing the bat, elbows gotta come down, which makes the bat path loose," said Jones while putting on a mini hitting clinic for a gathering of reporters. "He’s got this upward plane. Now, a pitch down he’ll be able to hit, but a pitch thigh-high he’s going to have trouble with. He’s gonna be behind it, trying to get out of his own way.

"And we’re just trying to get him — if he’s going to wrap the bat one way, wrap it (behind the head). That promotes a swing where your bat will stay in the strike zone for 16-18 inches, as opposed to right now his bat’s only in the zone 6-8 inches on an upward plane. The stars gotta line up."

Any help is welcome at this point for the elder Upton, who, after slumping his way through his worst season as a professional — hitting .184/.268/.289 with just nine home runs — is off to a similar start this season. Entering Thursday’s game, he had logged just four hits in 29 plate appearances and boasted the worst strikeout rate in the majors.

Enter Jones, who is as well-versed, at least in reporter lingo, at breaking down hitting mechanics as any player or former player out there. The former NL MVP even had some comparisons for Upton’s mechanical flaw — guys that were still able to put up big league numbers.

"Most of the guys that come past perpendicular at some point get back to the right position, and he’s never getting back to the right position. A guy like Gary Sheffield — you know, a pitcher could be (ready to throw), and he would be leg up, bat pointed (in the wrong direction), but he threw everything in to getting on top of the ball and getting down and through it and backing the ball up. Adam LaRoche, I’ve had many talks with him where he gets past perpendicular, but he’s gotten to the point where he gets to perpendicular now and gets the bat where it needs to be," Jones said. "And I think right now, we just need to try and get B.J. on the right plane. … There’s a bunch of different ways to skin a cat, but you’ve gotta do other things to make up for some of the flaws you have mechanically in your swing. Some guys are able to do it."

That all happened in the pregame.

In the loss against the Mets, Upton’s swing wasn’t drastically altered, although he did make contact in three of his plate appearances — a positive for a guy who had struck in nearly half of his at-bats this season. He finished with a triple and a run, though with Mets outfielder Curtis Granderson losing the ball in the lights, it’s hard to commend Jones for a one-day coaching miracle just yet.

Upton is now hitting .152/.152/.242, so there’s still only one way to go from here, right?

Jones and the rest of the staff see potential in Upton. Gonzalez moved him back to No. 2 in the lineup on Thursday, a spot his production does not warrant, perhaps as another early-season confidence boost.

"Just talking to Walk (hitting coach Greg Walker), and he’s watched him much longer than I have, when he was in Tampa he didn’t do that. He would get perpendicular and get (the bat) around his head — he played in the American League East, there’s some good pitching over there. I can remember him hitting homers off of John Lester in the playoffs. He was on time. I think he had one playoff run where he hit seven or eight homers in a playoff stretch, so it’s there. He’s gotten into some bad habits for some reason."