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CIN@ATL: Santana fans seven batters over 6 2/3 frames

Fredi Gonzalez had the pleasure of being the first manager to place Giancarlo Stanton's name in the starting lineup for a Major League game. When relieved of his duties as the Marlins' manager two weeks later, Gonzalez had the comfort of knowing he was likely just a few months away from being named Bobby Cox's successor in Atlanta.

As Gonzalez has thrived since becoming the Atlanta's manager in 2011, he has watched Stanton grow into one of baseball's premier sluggers. Though separated, the two have had plenty of opportunities to reconnect as the Braves and Marlins have waged their National League East battles.

Coming off a frustrating injury-plagued 2013 season, Stanton spent the first month of this current season resuming his role as a menace to opposing pitchers. The Marlins right fielder has batted .269 with eight home runs and a .906 OPS through the first 27 games. Stanton has tallied an NL-leading 31 RBIs.

The Braves have had some success against Stanton, limiting him to a .200 (4-for-20) batting average and three RBIs through five games this year. But with help from the powerful right fielder's home run on Tuesday night and a double on Wednesday, the Marlins have positioned themselves to potentially become the first club to sweep the Braves this year.

"[Stanton] is a guy you're going to have to get through it with him," Gonzalez said. "You don't want to just put him on. You want to make pitches and make him make outs, because the guy behind him [Casey McGehee] is swinging a pretty good bat."

The Braves had won seven of their previous eight series before getting outscored 18-3 during the first two games of this week's series.

"We're still confident here," Braves third baseman Chris Johnson said. "I think we think we can beat anybody. We just got our butts whipped a couple nights. That's really all you can say. It's going to happen. We're going to lose back-to-back games again at some point this season. I think tomorrow is a big game."

When the Braves and Marlins conclude a three-game series on Thursday night at Marlins Park, Ervin Santana will attempt to keep Stanton under wraps. Santana, who is coming off his worst start of the season, will be opposed by Henderson Alvarez, who has flashed his tremendous potential during his past two outings.

Santana surrendered two runs through his first three starts of the season, and it appeared he was going to extend the dominance as he held the Reds scoreless through the first five innings on Friday. But a lack of command with his changeup plagued him as he Cincinnati tallied a pair of runs in both the sixth and seventh innings.

"I didn't have my best stuff, but I still competed," Santana said.

Alvarez tossed a two-hit shutout against the Mariners on April 19 and then returned to the mound five days later to limit the Mets to two runs over six innings. He has produced a 2.19 ERA in the nine starts he has made since allowing the Braves five earned runs in four innings on Sept. 9, 2013.

The Marlins starting pitchers -- Jose Fernandez and Nathan Eovaldi -- have combined to allow just one earned run and five hits in the first two games of this series.

"I think our starting pitching has been solid all the way around," manager Mike Redmond said. "We talk about those young guys. We'll see how those guys continue to develop. The stuff is there. Every start for them, they're learning. It's a matter of making adjustments and learning from mistakes.

Braves: Bullpen starting to round into form
Though it included a similar cast, the Braves' bullpen spent the first couple of weeks of this season creating concerns that proved to be rare, as it produced a franchise-record 2.46 ERA last year.

But now that Craig Kimbrel has distanced himself from a sore shoulder and David Carpenter has regained the consistency he lacked in early April, the Braves once again have a dependable bullpen. Atlanta's relievers have allowed just three earned runs in 26 1/3 innings dating back to April 20.

The Braves' bullpen has whittled their ERA down from 4.73 to 3.26 over the past eight games. One of the most influential contributors to this successful run has been Jordan Walden, who has notched 13 strikeouts and held opponents scoreless in his past nine appearances.

Marlins: Sorting out second base
The arrival of Ed Lucas gives the Marlins another option at second base. Basically, the team now has four of them, depending on what Redmond wants to do.

Lucas came off the disabled list on Monday, after being out with a broken left hand. Lucas made starts at second base in each of the first two games against the Braves. An option against right-handed starters is left-handed-hitting Derek Dietrich.

Donovan Solano and Jeff Baker also can play second.

"I think we'll mix and match," Redmond said. "Dietrich can play against right-handed pitchers, but he can also pinch-hit. And he can come in and play defense as well. It is a luxury to have that versatility and flexibility as well."

Also, if the team needs to give McGehee a night off, Lucas is an option at third base. Lucas and Solano also can play shortstop, if Adeiny Hechavarria gets a day off.

Worth noting
• Justin Upton was named the National League's Player of the Month for April last year, and he exited this season's first month hitting .326 with eight home runs and a 1.041 OPS. Gonzalez said he's going to try to convince his left fielder that every day is April.

• Atlanta's starting pitchers had allowed two earned runs or fewer in 22 of the 24 games played before the Marlins totaled 16 earned runs against Alex Wood and Aaron Harang during the first two games of this series.

• In their last seven home games, Miami's starters have an 0.73 ERA (four earned runs in 49 innings).

• A year ago, the Marlins didn't win their 13th game until May 20. They were 13-32 at the time. Comments