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Simmons returns to Braves with red-hot bat

March 20, 2013; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves infielder Andrelton Simmons (19) slides safely into home plate during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

March 20, 2013; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves infielder Andrelton Simmons (19) slides safely into home plate during the game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

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March 20, 2013; Lake Buena Vista, FL, USA; Atlanta Braves infielder Andrelton Simmons (19) turns a double play over Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen at Champion Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- His play for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic made a hero of Andrelton Simmons in his native Curacao.

"We had a blast," the slick-fielding young shortstop said. "I didn't expect it to be that fun. I didn't expect the team to be that good. It was great."

Now comes the hard part, though. Can Simmons make his first full major league season a fitting encore to his WBC performance?

Off his first game back at spring training, you'd have to say that the answer to that is a resounding yes.

Simmons led off the Braves' five-run first inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Wednesday with a long double, then hit two home runs in the 18-9 victory.

"It's the way you want to start back," the young shortstop said. "I hope I didn't waste all my home runs."

"He had some great at-bats," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said.

Of course, it wasn't as if Simmons hadn't been playing in even more meaningful games the last few weeks.

"It wasn't like he'd been on vacation," Gonzalez said.

Although Simmons has played in just 49 major league games, the Braves are counting on the 23-year-old to be their leadoff hitter.

Simmons certainly looked like he was capable of handling it at the WBC.

"I hope I showed that I feel comfortable in that spot," Simmons said.

If statistics really don't lie, he certainly did.

The Netherlands was the surprise team of the WBC, reaching the semifinals, and Simmons was one of the big reasons why.

In eight games, Simmons batted .333 with three doubles, two homers and six RBIs. Most importantly for a leadoff hitter, he scored 10 runs.

Simmons' homer in the second round against Cuba in Japan was dramatic, tying the game in the eighth inning as the Netherlands rallied for the big victory.

"As of now, yes," Simmons said when asked whether the homer was the high point of his baseball career so far. "With people doubting the Netherlands so much, it was great to prove we could compete with higher-ranked nations."

Simmons led off the game with a walk and scored in the Netherlands' semifinal game against the Dominican Republic on Monday in San Francisco. The Dutch lost 4-1 to the eventual champion, but he had done well in his leadoff role.

Don't expect Simmons to draw a lot of walks, though. The free pass against the Dominican Republic was just his second in the WBC. But he also struck out just twice.

"Pretty much the same thing," Simmons said to his approach to batting first rather than eighth. "I take a couple more pitches at the start of the game. But once I get that first strike, I've got to play ball and hit."

Simmons had just five Grapefruit League trips to the plate before heading off to the WBC and will go into the regular season with a few less at-bats overall than he would have had if he had stayed in Florida.

But he certainly doesn't feel he is behind his teammates in getting ready for the opener against Philadelphia at Turner Field on April 1.

"I feel more like game ready," Simmons said of getting to play in high-pressure games in the WBC. "But I don't know what difference it would have made if I was working on different stuff here.

"I can't say yet. We'll see how it goes. Then we'll judge."

Of course, the Braves have never had concerns about Simmons' defense, and he showed it off again in the WBC with a circus catch to start a double play.

That was just one of the memories Simmons will take from his three weeks away from the Braves at the WBC.

"I felt like it helped," he said of the event. "It was a great experience and I took a lot from it."