ATLANTA -- As Spring Training progressed, Dan Uggla repeatedly said he felt much better than his statistics indicated. Coming off the most frustrating season of his career, he approached the regular season with the confidence that this year will prove much different than the last.
Time will tell whether this proves to be true. But Uggla certainly gained a much-welcomed burst of momentum when his first swing of this season resulted in a towering second-inning home run that halted his struggles against Cole Hamels and helped the Braves claim a 7-5 Opening Day win over the Phillies on Monday night at Turner Field.
"This was an awesome start, and I'm looking to build from it," Uggla said.
Monday marked the first time the Braves faced Hamels since Sept. 2. Atlanta fans will remember that as the day Chipper Jones capped a five-run ninth inning with a three-run walk-off home run against Jonathan Papelbon.
Uggla will remember it as the day he was benched. He had batted .152 with a .580 OPS in his previous 73 games and owned a .145 (8-for-55) career batting average against Hamels.
After the Braves put two runners on with one out in the ninth during that memorable September game, Uggla was announced as a pinch-hitter and then replaced by the left-handed-hitting Lyle Overbay once the Phils brought Papelbon out of the bullpen.
When Uggla walked away from the on-deck circle, he purposely went to the second entrance to the dugout to avoid a confrontation with manager Fredi Gonzalez.
"If I would have walked in the first entrance [of the dugout] and he would have slapped me on the [behind], there's a good chance we would have fought," Uggla said in September.
This fighting spirit helped Uggla elevate himself from a Rule 5 Draft selection to a three-time All-Star who is the only second baseman in Major League history to hit at least 30 home runs in five consecutive seasons. It is also the trait that has fueled him since he exited last season with career-low totals in batting average (.220), home runs (19) and OPS (.732).
"For some reason, there is some added pressure on him this year," Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "But he seems to brush it off real easily."
Much of that pressure is a product of the fact Uggla is owed $39 million over the final three years of his contract. The Braves can only hope that the 33-year-old second baseman still has a few productive seasons in his tank.
As Uggla attempted to keep his sanity and look on the bright side last year, he pointed out that he led the National League in walks (94) and ranked second among Atlanta's qualified players with a .348 on-base percentage.
But at the same time, he understands that the Braves made this significant financial commitment to him with the hope that he would continue to display the power potential that was present when he averaged 32 homers through his first six Major League seasons.
"I'm not making excuses," Uggla said. "I recognize that I'm getting paid what I get paid to do, and I take pride in that. It's going to be a continuous work in progress this year. But I'm ready for it and I'm excited about it."
Uggla was certainly not thrilled when he struck out in 12 of his first 23 at-bats during this year's Grapefruit League season. But hitting coach Greg Walker saw this rough start as a blessing in disguise.
Cognizant of the fact that he was making some of the same mechanical mistakes that plagued him last year, Uggla committed himself to making the necessary changes with assistance from Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher.
Uggla spent the final month of Spring Training focusing on getting his timing and weight distribution right. The results came slow as he ended up hitting just .200 (15-for-75) with two home runs in 26 Grapefruit League games. But there was some tangible improvement, evidenced by the fact that Uggla struck out 13 times in his final 52 at-bats.
"I've never looked at spring numbers," Uggla said. "Spring is to get work in and try to get that feeling. You want to get hot and roll it into the season. It really started clicking a couple days before we broke camp. I know everybody would have loved to see me hit .350 with seven homers. But it just doesn't go like that."
As Uggla looks forward to the remainder of this season, he no longer has to worry about what happened during Spring Training or as he endured regular frustration last year. He now has the luxury of carrying the momentum generated by the 3-0 fastball he drilled into the left-field seats with the first swing of this new year.
"It's a battle when you're struggling at the time," Uggla said. "I look back at what I did last year. I had a terrible two-month stretch. But I fought back and I had a good September. Then I continued to work hard in the offseason. You look back and you build from it."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.