Braves’ Gattis resumes pillaging with 2 HRs vs. Phillies

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Sensing that his dream of playing in the majors could be near, Evan Gattis in the past week or so did what others have done in similar situations. The Braves catcher began trying too hard.

“El Oso Blanco” relaxed and resumed pillaging pitchers Friday, hitting two long home runs and going 3-for-4 with three RBIs in the Braves’ 7-6 Grapefruit League loss to the Phillies at Bright House Field.

“Just get back to playing baseball,” said Gattis, who’d gone 2-for-14 with four strikeouts and no extra-base hits before unloading on left-hander Adam Morgan in the fifth inning and ex-Braves right-hander Chad Durbin in the sixth.

Gattis has hit .391 (18-for-46) with five doubles, four homers and 13 RBIs, and leads the Braves in slugging percentage (.761) and OPS (1.169). His nine extra-base hits are tied with Freddie Freeman for the team lead, Gattis in 17 fewer at-bats.

He said he worked with hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher on an adjustment in his swing this week, getting some of his weight off his back leg and closer to his center.

“Just tinkering with stuff and trying not to press so hard,” said Gattis, who could make the team as a catcher to begin the season and possibly as a third catcher and extra outfielder later.

“Gattis got his swing back again, which is good to see,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Two home runs and a little bloop that he muscled out there. And he caught the ball well. Good, productive day.”

With catcher Brian McCann recovering from shoulder surgery and likely to miss at least the first three weeks of the season, Gattis is expected to make the opening-day roster along with veteran backup catcher Gerald Laird. It’s uncertain how they’ll split the catching duties until McCann returns, but Gattis – assuming he’s on the team – might end up getting more than just a start or two per week.

The Braves want him on the team for his bat, and if he keeps hitting it will be hard to keep him out of the lineup, especially since his defense hasn’t been the problem some thought it might be.

“He’s good,” said Braves veteran left-hander Paul Maholm, who was charged with seven hits, two walks and four runs in six innings Friday, all the runs unearned after errors by third baseman Chris Johnson and second baseman Dan Uggla.

“It’s my third time this spring to get to throw to (Gattis). He’s kind of getting used to me and I’m getting used to him,” Maholm said. “Early on my breaking ball was working really well, and we went to it and stuck to it. I’m not going to throw 90 percent fastballs, so it was good that he’s getting how I like to mix it up and just try to get groundballs.”

Gonzalez said all spring that Gattis’ defense has been fine, and bullpen coach and former major league catcher Eddie Perez said Gattis blocks balls in the dirt, throws well, and has steadily improved his game-calling.

“I thought him and Pauley worked well together,” Gonzalez said. “Pauley did a nice job, going six innings and 94 pitches and mixed his breaking ball. We made some misplays behind him that cost four runs, but I thought he pitched well.”

Gattis acquired his nickname – Spanish for “The White Bear” – during winter ball in Venezuela, where the 240-pound Texan hit .303, tied for the league lead with 16 homers in 195 at-bats, and had a .595 slugging percentage that was 44 points higher than the next-best.

The first of his two homers Friday landed on the thatched roof of Frenchy’s Tiki Bar, which rises beyond and above the left-field seats. The right-handed hitter’s homer in the next inning also easily cleared the left-field fence, a couple of pitches after Gattis hit a mammoth fly ball that hooked foul and sailed farther than either home run.

“Kind of strong,” Maholm said, smiling at his understatement. “He miss-hit a couple of balls and drove them out. So … That’s pretty impressive to watch. The foul ball was probably more impressive.”