PITTSBURGH -- Chris Johnson has established himself as one of Major League Baseball's hottest hitters while spending most of the past two weeks playing first base in place of the injured Freddie Freeman. His success has put him in position to serve as the Braves regular third baseman when Freeman makes his expected return to Atlanta's lineup on Monday.
Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez entered this season planning to platoon Johnson and Juan Francisco at third base. But Johnson, who entered Saturday with a National League-best .412 batting average, could soon start getting most of the playing time at third base.
"We'll see," Gonzalez said. "Chris sure has made a case for himself to play every day. So, we'll see."
One of the concerns about utilizing a strict platoon with Francisco and Johnson centered around the fact Johnson would get most of the at-bats against left-handed pitchers. He entered this season hitting .255 with a .667 OPS against left-handers and .323 with a .775 OPS against right-handers.
But Johnson has altered this unusual trend through this season's first three weeks. He has hit .387 (12-for-31) with a .908 OPS against right-handed pitchers and .450 (9-for-20) with two home runs and a 1.226 OPS against southpaws.
Francisco has also gotten off to a good start, hitting .318 with three home runs and an .871 OPS entering Saturday. Concerns about his ability to hit left-handed pitchers have remained the same as he has recorded one hit in just eight at-bats against southpaws.
But even though Francisco possesses the greater power potential, it would be hard for the Braves to remove their most consistent hitter from the lineup. Johnson has hit .533 (16-for-30) in his past seven games.
The Braves entered this season hoping the additions of two right-handed hitters -- B.J. Upton and Justin Upton -- would allow them to avoid the struggles they experienced against left-handed pitchers last year. But with B.J. Upton getting off to a slow start, they entered Saturday hitting .208 against southpaws and .273 against right-handed pitchers.
Uggla plans quick return after exiting with calf strain
PITTSBURGH -- Braves second baseman Dan Uggla was forced to exit Saturday night's 3-1 loss to the Pirates when his left calf tightened up after he grounded out in the fourth inning.
Uggla attempted to stretch his calf when he returned to the dugout. But instead of trying to play through the ailment in the chilly conditions, he informed Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez that he needed to leave the game.
"It's got to take something sticking out of his leg for him to come out," Gonzalez said. "It was smart on his part."
Uggla, who played through a similar ailment in 2011, is hoping to return to the Braves lineup for Monday's series opener against the Rockies.
"It was enough to where it could have gotten real bad if I had stayed in there," Uggla said. "I tried to loosen it up once I got back to the dugout. So I was like, 'It's cold, let's just go in and get it taken care of.'"
Ramiro Pena served as the Braves second baseman for the remainder of Saturday's game and will continue to handle that role until Uggla returns.
Avilan shows enough progress to avoid disabled list
PITTSBURGH -- It appears the Braves were wise to show patience and allow reliever Luis Avilan a chance to prove he needed just a few extra days to rest his sore left hamstring. While throwing his bullpen session at PNC Park on Saturday afternoon, Avilan provided enough encouragement to believe he will not need to be placed on the disabled list.
"We feel really good about Avilan," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He threw a bullpen today and he feels good. I think he's available today in an emergency, and then maybe tomorrow."
The Braves entered Saturday night's game against the Pirates knowing that they likely would also be without Anthony Varvaro, who combined for three innings in two appearances the previous two days. They were also hoping to rest veteran reliever Luis Ayala, who totaled 51 pitches in the two appearances he had made over the previous three days.
To provide some bullpen depth on Saturday, the Braves placed infielder Blake DeWitt on the disabled list with a lower back strain and recalled right-handed reliever David Carpenter from Triple-A Gwinnett. DeWitt missed most of last season's second half with this same ailment.
If Avilan does indeed avoid the disabled list as expected, the Braves will likely send Carpenter back to Gwinnett on Monday to make room for Freddie Freeman, who has been on the disabled list since April 6 with a strained right oblique muscle.
While Carpenter's stay at the Major League level might be a short one, he was happy to join the Braves in Pittsburgh, which is located approximately two hours from his hometown of Fairmont, W. Va. The hard-throwing right-hander has steadily developed as a pitcher since converting from the catcher's position in 2008.
• Freeman struck out three times while serving as a designated hitter in his first Minor League rehab game with Triple-A Gwinnett on Friday night.
"Hopefully they were all swinging so he could really test his oblique," Gonzalez said.
Freeman was scheduled to play first base on Saturday and Sunday for Gwinnett. If all goes well, he'll be in Atlanta's lineup for Monday's series opener against the Rockies at Coors Field.
• The Braves were held scoreless in each of the three losses they had suffered through their first 16 games of this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last team in franchise history to suffer each of its first three losses in shutout fashion was the 1909 Boston Braves, who were blanked in three consecutive games after beginning 4-0.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.