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Johnson hitting his stride with Braves

Third baseman challenging for batting title, helping push for NL East flag

The Atlanta Braves had no idea they were getting a guy who might win a batting championship. After all, third baseman Chris Johnson began the season with a .276 career average. But the Braves knew plenty about the guy they were getting. Boy did they ever.

First, Johnson played at Stetson University. That's where Larry Wayne Jones Sr.-- yep, Chipper's dad -- works as a volunteer assistant coach. Also, Stetson head coach Pete Dunn is Chipper's godfather. Everything the Braves needed to know in terms of work ethic, heart, drive and hustle was delivered through their Stetson connection.

"And remember, we saw a lot of the Astros when Chris played for them," general manager Frank Wren said. "We felt we had a good handle on who Chris was."

Johnson was also what the Braves needed. Even as he envisioned a remade team with B.J. Upton and Justin Upton, Wren wasn't completely comfortable with the club's depth at third base in the wake of Chipper's retirement.

So, when Wren began discussing a Justin Upton deal with the Diamondbacks last winter, the GM sought to include a third baseman in the deal. Coincidentally, Johnson was available because Arizona acquired Martin Prado in the Upton trade.

Now about the original plan. The Braves figured that Juan Francisco and Johnson would form some sort of loose platoon at third. And they did for a few weeks.

Three weeks into the season, the Braves needed an extra roster spot for a reliever, and at that point Johnson became Atlanta's everyday third baseman.

Enter Evan Gattis

When the catcher hit .368 last spring, the Braves were forced to create a roster spot for him. In their final spring cuts, the decision was made to give the third-base job to Johnson.

Johnson did the rest. He has cut way down on his strikeouts and hit the ball harder than ever before. Maybe those two things were all part of the maturing process that plenty of players go through.

"Our hitting coaches, Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher, have worked with him," Wren said, "but I'd say he looks like basically the same guy he was when he got here last spring."

Johnson hit .369 in April and just kept going. By month, he has batted .283 in May, .300 in June, .381 in July and began Tuesday hitting .302 in August. Johnson's batting average hasn't fallen below .300 since early April, and he entered Tuesday night's game against the Mets leading the National League at .335.

On a team with a 16-game lead in the NL East, Johnson is one of many things that have fallen into place for the Braves. At 28, he has become pretty much exactly the player the Astros hoped he'd be when they took him in the fourth round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft.

Johnson was in the Major Leagues just three years later, and in his first real chance to play, batted .308 in 2010. He was dealt to the Diamondbacks last winter as Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow began stripping the franchise to its bones for a full-scale reconstruction.

Johnson hit .286 down the stretch for the D-backs, but when general manager Kevin Towers had a chance to get Prado, a longtime favorite, he included Johnson in the Atlanta package that featured Justin Upton.

Johnson may have been uncertain about what the Braves had in mind for him when he was informed of the deal, but he was happy to be joining Chipper's old team, possibly as Chipper's replacement.

Johnson is as polite and as soft-spoken a man as you'll ever meet when he's not in uniform. However, in uniform, his competitive fires rage. The Astros warned him about slamming bats and helmets after poor at-bats, that someday he was going to injure himself.

Johnson is still excitable, but has been so consistently productive and so solid on the team with the NL's best record that he'll be remembered as one of Wren's smartest moves.

After getting tossed from a game last week for arguing balls and strikes, Johnson showed up in the dugout at Turner Field with tape across his mouth. Manager Fredi Gonzalez made sure umpire Jim Joyce saw the tape. If it wasn't a straight-up apology, it was close.

Once upon a time, Johnson was seen as a cornerstone piece for the Astros. And then, he thought he might have a nice long stay in Arizona. Now, Johnson truly has landed, an important contributor on a team soaring toward the playoffs. Hats off to Wren for getting him and to Johnson for taking advantage of his opportunity.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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