He is not a four-time All-Star catcher or a Hall of Fame-bound third baseman, but Martin Prado has been at least as important as anyone in the Braves’ lineup these past few months.
Yes, the erstwhile utility man was as crucial to the team’s resurgence as Brian McCann, Chipper Jones, or any other player with bigger name recognition. In fact, Prado picked up some of the slack during Jones’ slump.
Since moving into the lineup June 30, he had hit .314 with 32 extra-base hits (eight homers), 40 RBIs, 48 runs and a .357 on-base percentage in 73 games before Wednesday.
“He’s always been highly thought of; he’s just never had the opportunity to get in there every single day,” manager Bobby Cox said. “He’s been a catalyst for us.”
Prado, 25, had four hits and four RBIs in a 5-4 win against Philadelphia on June 30, and that night Cox announced he would be the regular second baseman, for the time being.
Kelly Johnson, slumping at the time, was sent to Class AAA to rest a sore wrist and get his swing back. He never got his position back.
Prado thrived in his first regular duties until he was knocked for a loop by “exertion headaches” in mid-August.
He missed a week and was sluggish upon returning. He hit .198 with two extra-base hits and five RBIs in 23 games from Aug. 14 to Sept. 15, and the Braves were 10-13 in those games.
Prado snapped out of it with consecutive three-hit games Sept. 16-17 and hit .438 with 12 extra-base hits, seven RBIs and 17 runs in his past 12 games before Wednesday.
Included was a big ninth-inning homer Friday at Washington, two days after taking a line drive off the left shin that required X-rays.
“Bobby Cox always talks about playing hard and giving 100 percent,” Prado said, “and that’s what I’m doing.”
Cox said, “You thought he could do it, but he always had somebody in front of him. At third we’ve had Chipper, and at second we had Kelly. ... It’s unfortunate for Kelly. When we rested Kelly and got Prado going, how could you take him out?”
Hitting coach Terry Pendleton said of Prado’s performance: “I’m not surprised at all. Seriously, not at all. I always knew he could hit. I think he can get better and will get better. He’s a pretty darn good offensive player.”
Prado has presumably set himself up for a regular job in 2010, though the Braves haven’t said anything specifically.
“When one guy’s struggling and the other guy steps in and does what [Prado] has done, you have to be proud of him and excited for him,” Pendleton said. “At the same time, you’re talking about a Kelly Johnson; he’s got to regroup and come back fighting again.
“That’s part of how you make each other better. ... Hopefully it’ll make Kelly a better player and have him come back next year and battle his tail off for that position, too.”
*Jones entered Wednesday with 426 home runs, one from tying Mike Piazza for 39th on the all-time list. Jones also needed two homers to become the first player in major league history to begin his career with 15 consecutive seasons with at least 20 homers.
*Before Wednesday, Garrett Anderson was two hits from 2,500 for his career.