8/28/2014 1:31 A.M. ET
Johnson gets break amid hitting woes
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
NEW YORK -- Mired in a slump that has extended nearly three full weeks, Chris Johnson had no problem with the fact that he was not in Wednesday night's starting lineup. The unselfish Braves third baseman came to Citi Field well aware of the fact that he had previously struggled against Mets starting pitcher Zack Wheeler.
"I have no problem with that," Johnson said. "If I'm not going good against a starting pitcher out there or I'm struggling or whatever, whatever we have to do. I just want to win."
Given that he had notched two hits in 17 previous at-bats against Wheeler, Johnson knew the odds of breaking out of his funk on Wednesday were not favorable. But as September approaches, he remains hopeful that he will produce a strong finish to a season that obviously been much more trying than his surprising 2013 season.
Johnson exceeded all expectations when he batted .321 -- the National League's second-best mark -- with a .358 on-base percentage and .457 slugging percentage last year. These numbers trumped the career averages -- .276/.315/.430 -- he had carried into the season.
But as Johnson has progressed through his second season with the Braves, he has produced numbers much more similar to those career marks he had produced from 2009-2012. He entered Wednesday hitting .271 with a .296 OBP. His disappointing OBP is a product of the alarming strikeout ratios that he has produced while trying to hit for more power this season.
Although he has attempted to generate more power, Johnson has produced a career-low .375 slugging percentage.
"I've been trying to work on pulling the ball a little bit more and kind of driving balls a little more this year," Johnson said. "I think that has gotten me into pulling off some balls and getting first-pitch strikes and fouling balls off because I'm trying to do too much. Last year, I would just take my hits.
"I just never really got big [with my swing] last year. I want to find that happy medium for my game. I think I've got power. I just have to learn how to do what I'm really good at and use that power."
After striking out in just 21.2 percent of his plate appearances last year, Johnson has been retired via strikes in 26.1 percent of the time this year. Once again, this year's number is closer to the 24.7 percent that he produced from 2009-12.
As Johnson's strikeout total has risen to an already career-high 136, his walk rate has decreased from 5.3 percent to 3.3 percent this year. His 30.7 plate appearances/walk ratio stands as the NL's highest.
"There is only one stat that has absolutely killed me, and it's the strikeouts," Johnson said. "I'm a firm believer that if you put the ball in play you have a better opportunity to get hits. I've just struck out too much. It's something I've got to figure out."
Simmons continues to dazzle with latest gem at short
NEW YORK -- When asked what he considers to be the best of Andrelton Simmons' defensive plays, Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez has repeatedly said, "The next one."
Through his first three seasons at the Major League level, Simmons has routinely trumped some of his gems that originally seemed impossible to top. But when accounting for both the situation and degree of difficulty, it will be quite challenging for the Braves shortstop to best what he did to end the eighth inning of Wednesday night's 3-2 win over the Mets.
"He's unbelievable, always making plays for us," Braves starting pitcher Julio Teheran said. "Every time you don't think he's going to make the play, that is when he makes it."
With a runner on third and two outs in the eighth inning, d'Arnaud sent a sharp grounder through the left side of the infield. Once it escaped third baseman Phil Gosselin's reach, it seemed destined to result in a game-tying single that Justin Upton would glove in left field. But, all the while Simmons was ranging to his right.
"When it went by [Gosselin], it was just how am I going to get it over [to first base]," Simmons said. "That was the fastest way I could think of right there."
With momentum pulling him toward the right field line, Simmons backhanded the ball in the outfield grass and then hopped off his left leg. As he was in the air, he managed to rocket an accurate throw that first baseman Freddie Freeman scooped to record the out in uncontested fashion.
"As soon as the ball gets in my glove, I'm looking for him," Simmons said. "So as soon as I get in the air I got him locked in. If I don't, then I'm in trouble because I'm throwing into space and hoping it falls in the right spot. … I knew it was on target, I was just hoping it didn't take a bad or weird hop."
d'Arnaud was not necessarily shocked by the incredible development. One inning earlier, Simmons had backhanded one of his grounders in the infield dirt before making a throw to first base to record the out.
"When he made the play, I saw in the dugout that he was out and I said, 'I'd like to go out and challenge it as best I can, but I know he's out so all I'm doing is delaying the game a little bit,'" Mets manager Terry Collins said.
Simmons won his first Gold Glove Award last year and he entered Wednesday having compiled a Major League-high 62 Defensive Runs Saved since the start of the 2013 season. No other shortstop had more than 25.
Simmons' greatness has led many to compare him to the great Ozzie Smith, who played alongside Braves first-base coach and former third baseman Terry Pendleton for many years in St. Louis.
Pendleton said arm strength is the one thing that would have prevented Smith from matching what Simmons did on Wednesday night.
"If they are playing in the same spot, yes Ozzie Smith could get to that ball," Pendleton said. "But Ozzie might not have been able to throw the ball. He'd have gotten to the ball, but I don't know if he'd have been able to throw it because he played from 1985 until the day he retired with a torn rotator cuff. It's safe to say he would have gotten to the ball, but I don't know if he'd have had the arm strength to do what the kid did."
It would have been difficult for any shortstop to match Simmons' latest gem. But Gonzalez is certainly not ready to make any guarantee that this latest will indeed remain the greatest.
"How many times have we said that and there is another one?" Gonzalez said. "Maybe this one wasn't as graceful as some of the others. But the situation with two outs and the tying run at third … I'll stick to my guns with that one. There will be something else that we'll sit here and talk about because he's a special guy."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.