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Prado a vital piece of the puzzle for Braves

WAS View Full Game Coverage HINGTON -- It's difficult to fathom the existence of a lifelong Atlanta Brave who has never appeared in a playoff game, but here Martin Prado is.

Prado, one of the most versatile players in baseball, made his Atlanta debut in 2006, the year that the club's amazing run of division titles came to an end. He was injured at the end of the 2010 season and missed the Braves' National League Division Series loss to the Giants. And last year, a clearly not-himself Prado was one of several Braves who slumped as the team saw a huge NL Wild Card lead vanish en route to another appointment-free October.

This time around he's doing all he can to make sure his luck changes. Leading off, starting in left field and finishing at second base on Wednesday night, he laced two doubles to help the Braves to a desperately needed 5-1 win over the first-place Nationals. He racked up six hits, including five doubles, during a three-game series in which the Braves didn't manage a whole lot of offense.

"Today he was perfect," said manager Fredi Gonzalez. "You start him in left field, he ends up at second base. He can play first. He can play third. He's played short. It's a valuable piece, especially in the National League game. ... It's big. It's a big piece."

Prado isn't the most valuable Brave -- that's likely Michael Bourn or Jason Heyward, or perhaps even Chipper Jones -- but there might not be anybody Gonzalez leans on more. Prado's a former All-Star but still a player who stays mostly under the radar, though his teammates know his value. And the stats tell the truth.

"Prado's probably our most versatile player," Jones said. "You can hit him anywhere in the lineup. You can play him anywhere in the field. He allows us to be a versatile ballclub. We can interchange a lot of things when he's there -- not to mention the fact that he's hitting .300."

The right-handed hitter has made starts at five positions this season, and over the course of his career, he's made at least one start at every spot in the batting order, one through nine. There's tremendous comfort for a manager in having an asset like that. It's even better if the guy can play ball, and Prado assuredly can.

Following his outburst this week, Prado is batting .298 with a .356 on-base percentage, a .437 slugging percentage, 65 runs scored and 14 steals. He's walking more than ever and striking out less than in any year but 2011, and he is on pace for a career high in doubles. Those aren't sexy numbers, but they're awfully valuable, especially for an outfielder-slash-second baseman-slash-shortstop-slash-third baseman-slash-first baseman.

"I feel blessed," Prado said. "That starts before the game, [during] batting practice. I take ground balls, prepare myself for any situation in the game. That's what I want. That's what I want to be. I want to be a guy the team needs for any situation."

A year ago, very little went right for Prado. He missed a month at midseason because of an infection in his right knee, and he was never the same after that. He put up career worsts in batting average and on-base percentage, and the worst full-season slugging percentage of his career to boot.

Though his name came up in trade rumors over the winter, Atlanta held onto him and has reaped the rewards. On a team that has had some trouble hitting left-handed pitching, he's been a critical asset. His defensive versatility allows for all sorts of creativity, such as when he moved from left field to second base in order to get Bourn in the game on Wednesday.

"Last year was a bump in the road," Prado said. "I had an infection, so it was something that I couldn't control. Things just happened. I felt that after that, I got confidence in myself and got in good position for the team. I prepared myself so hard."

It's certainly paying off now, but it will be even better if it results in that long-awaited October appearance.

Matthew Leach is an editor and reporter for Read his blog, Obviously, You're Not a Golfer and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewHLeach.

Atlanta Braves, Martin Prado