When Chipper Jones retired after 2,726 hits, 468 home runs and nearly 2,000 regular-season games at third base, the baseball world wondered how the Braves would replace the heart and soul of a franchise that once captured 14 division titles in 15 seasons.
The answer, so far, seems to be just fine, thank you.
Despite winning only two games on a recent nine-game road trip, they continue to lead the National League East Division (17-10, 3 1/2-game lead on Washington through Wednesday). The Braves dominated early, winning 12 of their first 13 games, and have been tough to beat at Turner Field (8-3), where they host the Mets for three games Friday night.
Turner Field has been a tough place for the Mets to play, but one thing they won't mind is having to face an Atlanta lineup that does not feature Jones at third base. Against the Mets, Chipper was a career .309 hitter, with 49 homers.
Much of Atlanta's early success this season has been connected to ways they've found to replace the eight-time All-Star. It's been a three-pronged task -- replace his bat in the lineup, his glove at third base and, importantly, his leadership.
"Replacing him in the (lineup), it was pretty simple for us,'' said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "The (answer) is Justin Upton. You pencil him into the third spot and he does his job. He's a legit No. 3 hitter and that's what Chipper was. It didn't matter who was on the mound, Chipper hit third. It doesn't matter who's on the mound, Justin Upton hits third.''
Hit he has. Upton, 25, acquired in a trade from the Diamondbacks, is batting .299 and leads the league with 12 homers and 17 extra-base hits (through Wednesday).
That's been vital, because the Braves have been a feast-or-famine offensive unit. Although they are out-homering opponents by almost a 2-to-1 margin, the lineup also leads the NL in strikeouts. Right fielder Jason Heyward was hitting .121 before an appendectomy sent him to the DL on the recent road trip, Dan Uggla is hitting .163 and big money free agent B.J. Upton, Justin's brother, is at .138.
"This offense hasn't even scratched the surface of what we're capable of doing,'' says Uggla, after the Braves struck out 39 times in three games and were outscored 25-7 last weekend in being swept in Detroit.
When first baseman Freddie Freeman went to the DL with an oblique strain after batting .412 in the season's first five games and with catcher Brian McCann also on the DL, Gonzalez has juggled his lineup. He used 10 different lineups in the 10 games on the road.
Johnson, who led the NL in batting (.369 through Wednesday) has filled in for Freeman at first and Evan Gattis, filling in for McCann, also saw time there. Gattis, a history of drug abuse and a career as a janitor long behind him, has six home runs and 16 RBIs.
"There's a lot of pieces to this team,'' says Gattis, 26. "With guys who can play a lot of positions, we have a lot of moving parts. And we know we're just always a couple of good at-bats from putting up a lot of runs.''
To a man, the Braves acknowledge they can't duplicate Jones' clubhouse presence or voice. But it's never been cause for concern.
"We have plenty of guys who have helped take over that role,'' Gozalez said. "I don't see a problem there . . . You lead by example. You don't have to stand in the middle of the clubhouse and yell and scream and get in people's faces to be a leader.''
Despite the Braves' 5-9 record since their hot start, there's little arguing with early returns, especially after having played 16 of their first 24 games away from Turner Field.
"They're pretty solid, obviously,'' says Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche. "It's going to be a battle every time we play them. We've had some big leads on these guys and they always seem to come back and make it a game. We haven't seen them lay down yet.''