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February 12, 2014

Braves’ B.J. Upton eager to start over

ATLANTA — B.J. Upton would like a do-over on his debut season with the Braves.

The subject came up when Upton, as part of the team’s winter promotional tour, made a recent visit to Redan High School in the Atlanta area. He was asked by a student if would change anything in his career.

Upton didn’t hesitate before answering, “Anything in baseball? Last year. The whole last season.”

It’s an understandable wish. After signing the biggest free-agent contract in Braves history — $75.25 million for five years — Upton endured a nightmarish 2013 season.

He hit only .184, struck out in more than one-third of his at-bats and was benched. The only highlights were playing beside his younger brother, Justin Upton, in the outfield and seeing the Braves advance to the playoffs.

“Definitely it was tough,” B.J. Upton told The Associated Press. “You know, baseball is going to throw you some curveballs, so to speak.”

After missing far too many curveballs — and fastballs and sliders — Upton is writing off the season as an aberration.

“Maybe not to that magnitude, but at some point I think every player goes through that type of season,” he said. “As long as you can learn from it so that some of the things that happened won’t happen again, that’s all you can ask.”

The new start begins with spring training. Braves pitchers and catchers report on Thursday. The full squad reports on Feb. 18, and the first full-squad workout is Feb. 19.

Upton impressed his teammates and manager Fredi Gonzalez by continuing to spend extra time on his swing through his disappointing season.

“He’s one of the hardest workers on the team,” said third baseman Chris Johnson. “He’s always in the cage. Those two brothers are workhorses.”

Assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher said Upton never changed his demeanor, even after losing his starting job.

“He didn’t pout,” Fletcher said. “He just kept working. He was ready for anything that Fredi needed from him. That shows a lot of his character. I look for him to come back and do well. That’s just the type of competitor he is. He’s had a lot of great years and he’s going to continue to do that. I think he’s going to have some great years for us.”

Upton hit 28 homers and had 31 stolen bases in 2012 with Tampa Bay. He hit only nine homers with 12 steals last season.

The Braves need Upton, 29, to at least approach his career .248 batting average.

Upton worked on his swing at his offseason home in Tampa, Fla., where he had a visit from Braves hitting coach Greg Walker.

“My reports from Greg have been positive,” said Braves general manager Frank Wren. “I think he’s approached the offseason well. From what Greg has seen of his work, he thinks it’s steps in the right direction.”

After last season, Wren said Upton may have tried too hard to show he deserved the big contract.

“It’s a deep hole that gets deeper and deeper the harder you try,” Wren said. “We’ve seen dozens and dozens of players go through it.”

Upton said he didn’t expect such a difficult transition to the National League.

“It’s just the nature of the beast,” Upton said. “You come to a new organization and a new league and it’s just a whole bunch of variables that I don’t think you really think of affecting you as a player, and they might have the slightest bit. I don’t think a lot of guys see it really hitting them that hard. It was just a totally different situation.

“Obviously you don’t want it to go that way. I don’t regret it. Maybe it was something I needed to happen. It’s not something I’m going to dwell on. It’s a fresh start and I get to move on.”

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