With Freddie Freeman set to return to the Braves lineup on Monday in Colorado, manager Fredi Gonzalez had a choice to make at third base, and Chris Johnson has all but made it for him.
Entering Sunday, Johnson was hitting .418 (23-for-25) to lead the National League and had multi-hit games in seven of his past 11 games. When Freeman returns to first base, Gonzalez is expected to give Johnson the every-day role at third base, instead of platooning with Juan Francisco.
Gonzalez hinted at it on Saturday and by Sunday it sounded like a foregone conclusion.
“Guy is leading the league in hitting, you know?” Gonzalez said. “We’re not exactly hitting on all cylinders, so…”
He’s not going to sit his hottest hitter at a time when four regulars in the lineup are hitting under .200. Johnson would have played against Colorado left-hander Jeff Francis in the series opener either way, but the Braves figure to have him at third base against right-handers Jon Garland and Jhoulys Chacin as well.
Francisco went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts on Saturday in a loss to Pittsburgh and was out of the lineup against left-hander Jonathan Sanchez on Sunday. He was 1-for-9 with six strikeouts in the series.
Johnson attributes his hot start to work with hitting coach Greg Walker on his bath path and keeping the bat in the strike zone longer, as well as hitting the ball up the middle and from gap-to-gap.
“I’m a load-early guy,” Johnson said. “My foot gets down early, so I have a tendency to come up and out of my swing. Just working on making sure I’m staying inside the ball and using the big part of the field.”
He joked that he knows things are going pretty well for him when he hasn’t heard much from his dad, the Orioles Triple-A manager in Norfolk.
“Right now he’s just kind of leaving me alone,” Johnson said. “I’ll take an 0-for-4 and he’ll call me.”
Speaking of hot, Freeman went 5-for-5 in his minor league rehabilitation game Saturday night for Triple-A Gwinnett and wrapped it up by going 0-for-4 Sunday in Gwinnett before heading out to catch a flight to Denver. The Braves, who had hit only .179 and averaged 1.8 runs per game in their previous four games, were looking forward the lift Freeman will bring, both offensively and defensively.
“Free in our lineup, he’s an RBI hog,” Jason Heyward joked. “He’s been that way since I’ve been playing with him.”
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