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BRAVES NOTEBOOK: New Big 3 keep Atlanta's bullpen elite

Luis Avilan is one of several Braves relievers who have been dominant this season.

Luis Avilan is one of several Braves relievers who have been dominant this season.

ATLANTA — They haven’t put together a sustained body of work that can be mentioned in the same breath as the Braves’ former “O’Ventbrel” bullpen trio, but the team’s current Big 3 relievers lately have been shutting down opponents in comparable fashion.

Luis Avilan and Jordan Walden have filled in ably for injured setup men Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters, and closer Craig Kimbrel has bounced back from a sluggish two-week period to pitch much as he did during 2011-12, when he was baseball’s most dominant reliever.

The three helped the Braves carve a major league-leading 2.68 bullpen ERA and majors-best .610 opponents’ on-base-plus-slugging percentage entering the series with Philadelphia.

“Those guys have done an amazing job,” said Braves catcher Brian McCann, who also noted key performances by relievers Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter. “To fill those shoes, to fill in for those two guys, O’Flaherty and Venters, with what they’ve done the last four years, has been nothing short of remarkable. Some are stepping into new roles, and they’re answering the bell.”

Kimbrel had a 1.48 ERA, 23 saves in 26 opportunities, and 43 strikeouts with 10 walks in 30 1/3 innings before Thursday. Avilan had a 1.60 ERA in 39 appearances, with a .150 opponents’ average that was tied for second-lowest among all major league relievers (minimum 20 innings).

Walden, after missing much of spring training with a bulging disk and spending time on the disabled list with a sore shoulder, had a 2.63 ERA in 28 appearances before Thursday, with 30 strikeouts and five walks (two intentional) in 27 1/3 innings.

Each member of the Braves’ revamped Big 3 has turned it up a notch or two in recent weeks -- after Walden returned from the DL and Avilan recovered from a strained hamstring.

Avilan is a protege of O’Flaherty and pitches a lot like him, preferring to walk a batter rather than “give in” and throw a pitch over the middle when behind in a count. He eschews strikeouts for double-play grounders any time he can get them and will pitch around right-handed hitters to get to lefty hitters he’s confident he can retire.

The young lefty had an 0.77 ERA and an .083 opponents’ average in his past 26 appearances before Thursday, including only two hits and no earned runs allowed in 16 innings over his past 18 appearances.

“I’ve been feeling really good,” Avilan said. “All my pitches are good right now. I just think baseball is about being lucky sometimes. In Kansas City the other day, those guys made good contact, but in the perfect direction (for an out). Maybe today there’s going to be five bloopers and two runs. You don’t control that. You just can control throwing strikes, and that’s it.”

Of his bigger role this season, he said: “I feel like I have more responsibility, but I feel comfortable and I know what I have to do. Don’t try to do too much.”

Walden gave up five hits and five earned runs while recording only four outs in a three-appearance span before going on the DL in mid-May. Since returning, he posted an 0.63 ERA and a .104 opponents’ average in 14 appearances before Thursday, allowing one run (on a homer) and five hits with 14 strikeouts and two walks in 14 1/3 innings.

“My arm feels great,” the former Angels closer said. “Just trying to attack hitters, man. Throw strikes and attack them.”

Kimbrel allowed eight hits, five runs and three homers in 4 2/3 innings over five appearances from April 24 through May 7, blowing three saves in that period and causing some concern in Braves Country.

In 17 appearances since, he converted 13 consecutive saves while allowing 10 hits and seven walks with 22 strikeouts in 17 scoreless innings before Thursday.

“We just try to do our job because we know in the ninth inning it’s going to be Kimbrel, and that’s lights out,” Avilan said. “That’s game over.”


Justin Upton getting his groove back

ATLANTA — Justin Upton may start to regain the spark that made him one of the National League’s most feared hitters in April.

Going into the series with Philadelphia, Upton was 11-for-39 (.282) over his last ten games and had lifted his batting average to .245 (72-for-294). He continues to lead the team in home runs (15) and is second with 38 RBI.

“He’s swinging the bat good,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

Upton was 7-for-24 on the recent six-game homestand, with two multi-hit games.

Upton’s average had fallen as low as .239 after he went 0-for-4 against the Mets on June 19. That was the end of a stretch that saw him go 2-for-23.

Upton began his career with the Braves by hitting a home run in each of his first five games. He had 13 home runs in his first 38 games. In April he hit .298 with 12 homers and 19 RBI. He was named N.L. Player of the Month for April and set the bar extremely high.

“That stuff he did in April … it’s hard to keep that pace up,” Gonzalez said. “At the end of the year I think his numbers will be where they’re supposed to be.”

Upton used that April push to jump to third place in the All-Star voting. Should he hold that spot, he’ll earn a spot on the team for the third time (2009, 2011).

Power and production have been in short supply since then. Upton hasn’t homered since June 12 in San Diego. He had only eight RBI in June.


Chipper wants ump Hernandez to lose his job

Former Atlanta Braves third baseman chipper Jones does not like what he sees when Angele Hernandez is umpiring a game.

The future Hall of Famer, who retired at the end of last season, sent out a series of tweets Friday expressing his dissatisfaction with the job Hernandez is doing.

Even though Hernandez has more than 2,500 games of major league umpiring experience, he is not considered popular among fans and players due to his perceived inconsistent strike zone.

“Didn’t take Angel long to screw up the strike zone, did it??? Hang with em, Simba!!!” Jones wrote early during the Braves 5-4 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Jones then tweeted that he would boycott any games that Hernandez is working.

“I will not watch a game, any game, officiated by Angel Hernandez! His incompetence amazes me and I’m tired of MLB doing squat about it! Nite,” he wrote.

But Jones was not done. He concluded by urging fans to join him in refusing to watch games worked by Hernandez.

“Our only recourse, as fans, is to turn the station whenever he, or his crew, are on the field. When viewer numbers go down, MLB will notice,” Jones wrote.

Jones played 19 seasons, all with the Braves, and is considered one of the greatest switch hitters of all time.