It would be difficult for Justin Upton to equal, much less surpass, his remarkable first week with the Braves. But it looks as if he’s going to try.
On a night when Braves pitcher Paul Maholm didn’t need much assistance, Upton provided plenty with four hits including his major league-leading sixth home run Monday in a 2-0 series-opening win against Miami at Marlins Park.
Maholm (2-0) limited the Marlins to one hit in seven innings and hasn’t allowed a run in 12/2/3 innings during his first two starts. The Braves improved to 6-1 and moved 1-1/2 games ahead of idle Washington atop the NL East standings.
“I just told (Upton) to make sure he keeps doing it when I pitch,” Maholm joked, after teaming with Eric O’Flaherty and Craig Kimbrel for the Braves’ first shutout win.
“It’s fun,” said Upton, who also had two singles and a double in a 4-for-4 performance that raised his average to .423. “We’re winning in different ways. Every night it’s different, so we’re having fun out there. It’s been a good week.”
It was the eighth career game with at least four hits for Upton, and his first as a Brave. He had a three-hit, two-homer game Saturday that included a walk-off homer for his third game-winning RBI, most in the majors before Monday.
“He’s a guy that can carry you,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “That’s what a three-hole hitter does. You sprinkle some support staff around here and there and he can carry you.”
Upton was asked if he was on some sort of mission to show Arizona that it made a mistake trying to trade him over the past couple of years before finally dealing him to the Braves in January.
“No, you can’t live that way,” he said. “You can’t live hoping other people fail or doing things in spite of people. I’m just not that type of person. I’m with a new team now and having fun. This is a great clubhouse, great place to play, and I’m just enjoying myself.”
He doubled to start the fourth inning and scored one out later on Dan Uggla’s groundout for a 1-0 lead. Then with one out in the sixth, Upton unloaded on a 1-and-0 fastball from Marlins starter Kevin Slowey, powering it high over the left field bullpen and beyond a section of seats above that, for a 2-0 lead.
That was more than enough support for Maholm and the Braves bullpen, although Kimbrel provided some moments of consternation in the ninth before notching his third save in as many opportunities.
Eric O’Flaherty pitched around an Uggla error in the eighth inning and Kimbrel gave up a leadoff walk and a two-out single in the ninth before striking out Adeiny Hechavarria with runners on the corners to end the game. Upton made an over-the-shoulder catch of a Justin Ruggiano just before the left-field warning track for the second out in the ninth.
Maholm retired the last nine batters he faced and 13 of the last 14, including five by strikeout. He finished with seven strikeouts and three walks and threw 59 strikes in 98 pitches.
“Obviously I’m going to give up runs,” he said. “I’m going to try to ride this as long as possible. Every time out I’m going to try to do the same thing. I’m going to try to be aggressive, get some quick outs, mix speeds and get ground balls. Some days it’s going to work, some days it’s not. But right now I feel good, I feel in rhythm.
“The three walks aren’t exactly what I wanted, but it’s more managing the lineup than it was that I was really that far off.”
The veteran left-hander retired the side in order in four innings and didn’t face more than four batters in any inning other than the first and third. In both of those innings, he worked around slugger Giancarlo Stanton, the only formidable hitter in the stripped-down Marlins’ lineup.
Maholm issued consecutive two-out walks to Stanton and Greg Dobbs in the first inning before Ruggiano flied out on the next pitch. In the third, Placido Polanco singled with two outs and Maholm walked Stanton before striking out Dobbs.
A crowd of 34,439 turned out for Miami’s home opener and saw the Marlins get shut out for the third time and fall to 1-6 to start a season that figures to be long and difficult for their young, mostly inexperienced and undistinguished team. The disparity was glaring between the rosters and the direction the two teams seem headed.
Upton’s homer was his his sixth in seven games. He also entered Monday as the major league leader in game-winning RBIs (three) and slugging percentage (1.045). With his walk-off homer Saturday against the Cubs, he became the first player to hit five homers in his first five games with a new team.
“You definitely notice,” Upton said. “You can’t ignore it. But you’ve got to try not to get too high on it and continue to come in and get your work in, and keep doing what you’re doing.”
The Braves got Upton and infielder Chris Johnson from Arizona in a seven-player January trade that sent Martin Prado, Randall Delgado and three minor leaguers to Arizona. Upton and Johnson had seven of the Braves’ 10 hits Monday, with Johnson going 3-for-4 to raise his average to .357.
Third baseman Juan Francisco also had two hits and made a bare-handed defensive play reminiscent of the retired Chipper Jones.
“I was just going out there, trying to get ahead, mixing pitches, letting them put the ball in play and letting the guys make some plays,” Maholm said. “Juan had a great barehanded play on the bunt. The guys took care of me, and I tried to make some pitches.”
Upton already has two more homers this month than any Brave had in April last season. Nine NL teams had fewer than six homers before Monday.
“We’ve got some (hitters) struggling obviously,” Gonzalez said. “We’ve only got about three guys hitting on all cylinders, but (coach) Roger (McDowell) has done a great job with the pitching. Our pitching, for seven games, has been right there. With Justin doing the damage. The Cubs series, it was the same thing.”
Upton hit his sixth homer in the seventh game of the season. Last year with Arizona, he hit his sixth homer in his 69th game on June 20.