While Gattis is out, Braves must pick up slack

El Oso Blanco is down, but the Braves say they aren’t out.

Braves catcher Evan Gattis, aka El Oso Blanco, has a bulging thoracic disc in his upper back and was placed on the 15-day disabled list Monday night, retroactive to Saturday. There is no timetable for the slugger’s return, but it’s unlikely that he would require surgery and the hope is that he’ll be ready soon after the July 14-17 All-Star break.

In the meantime, Braves players say it’s up to them to pick up the slack in the absence of their torrid-hitting catcher while they continue battling the Nationals atop the NL East standings. Veteran backup Gerald Laird and strong-armed prospect Christian Bethancourt will handle the catching duties while Gattis is out, but neither is going to supply offense even remotely similar to Gattis’ production.

“We did a lot of that last year, too,” third baseman Chris Johnson said of others stepping up their performance when a key team member is out. “We’ve been doing that since spring training. It’s nothing new.

“It stinks to have Gattis go down because he’s such a big part of the middle of our lineup. And a catcher, which is huge. But we’ve been doing that since last year, so I think we’re pretty used to it.”

Gattis was scheduled to have an epidural today to relieve some pain and inflammation.

“After that we’ll just see,” he said of his recovery. “I’m not sure what he timetable will be. I don’t think it will be too long term. Obviously (it’s) disappointing, but I’m just ready to get back out there.”

The Braves last season overcame several key injuries including two DL stints for Jason Heyward and Tim Hudson’s season-ending broken ankle. This year they lost starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beach to season-ending elbow surgeries in March, before the season even began.

But this year the offense has been inconsistent and underperforming for most of the first half, and Gattis has carried a bigger load than anyone imagined he would need to – and more than many previously believed he was capable of carrying. He has surpassed all expectations, particularly over the past six weeks since making adjustments to his swing.

Gattis’ .558 slugging percentage was 55 points higher than the team’s next best (Justin Upton’s .503) before Tuesday. He was with Upton for the team home-run lead with 16 in 224 at-bats (62 fewer than Upton). Most surprising, he was tied with Freddie Freeman for the team batting-average lead at .290, after hitting .243 with a .291 OBP as a rookie.

“It’s a huge blow to lose anybody like that who comes to the field every day, wants to play, is dangerous in the box, and he’s hungry,” Heyward said. “He wants to to get it done every night on both sides of the ball. Just seeing him take some big strides this year, behind the plate and at the dish – we’re going to miss that.

Gattis was leading the team with 12 homers and a .516 slugging percentage against right-handers, and his .375 average (15-for-40) against lefties ranked second to Johnson’s .447.

At Turner Field, Gattis has hit .323 with nine homers, 24 RBIs and a team-best .626 slugging percentage in 29 games and 99 at-bats. On the road, Freeman (.521) and Gattis (.504) are the only Braves with slugging percentages as high as .400.

With runners on base, Gattis leads the Braves with a .315 average (29-for-92) and seven homers, and his .598 slugging percentage with runners on base is more than 100 points higher than the team’s next-best (Freeman .484).

And finally, in the month of June Gattis led the Braves in average (.353), OBP (.402) and slugging percentage (.635), and despite playing only 22 games (85 at-bats) he also led the team in homers (seven) and RBIs (17). Many baseball writers around the country believed that Gattis had put himself in position for likely selection to the NL All-Star team as a reserve.

“If there’s ever been a clear-cut guy that deserves to go to the All-Star game, it’s him,” Braves reliever David Carpenter said. “The work that he’s put in to get where he’s at, you see him out there every day busting his butt. If he has a question he goes to G (Laird) or he’ll go to (bullpen coach) Eddie (Perez) or he’ll go to Rog (pitching coach Roger McDowell) and try to make himself better. He’s given everything he’s got every single day, and to see something like that happen to him, your heart goes out to him.

“Hopefully it’s a (DL) situation like mine was – 15 games, he’s right back at it…. Not only is he a good story, he’s a great guy. He’s a guy you want to cheer for.”

If Gattis is able to return in a matter of weeks, the one potentially positive aspect of the situation is that Bethancourt will have gotten his first opportunity to play at the big-league level and show if he’s ready — or how close he is to being ready.

In his first two big-league starts the rangy defensive whiz from Panama has impressed, particularly behind the plate. In his first start Saturday at Philadelphia, his quick exchange and strong arm were displayed on a throw to second base after Ben Revere got a huge jump on a stolen base. He was safe, but Bethancourt made the play closer than it should’ve been.

From the dugout the Braves had his “pop time” on that throw – from the moment it hits the catcher’s glove to the time it’s caught at second base – at 1.81 seconds, and a scout had it at 1.77 seconds. Most major league catchers are in the 1.9-2.1 range, and perennial Gold Glove winner Yadier Molina of the Cardinals is usually in the 1.85-1.9 range.

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