ATLANTA -- Second baseman Elliot Johnson was denied extra bases when Padres center fielder Will Venable ranged into the left-center-field gap to make a diving grab in the first inning on Saturday night, making it halfway to second base before he turned for the Braves' dugout in disbelief.
The next morning, Johnson took little consolation from the fact that Venable has spent all year turning heads with highlight-reel plays, or that Johnson himself had robbed Venable of an infield single with a nifty glove-flip on a slow roller in the third inning of Friday's series opener.
Since Johnson was claimed off waivers from the Royals on Aug. 21, he has impressed with a handful of slick plays at multiple spots in the field and produced enough at the plate to earn regular playing time from manager Fredi Gonzalez. After hitting just .179 with 49 strikeouts and an OPS of .458 in 79 games in Kansas City, Johnson entered Sunday with a .259 average, an OPS of .657 and five steals in his first 19 games with the Braves.
"This is pretty much what I do," Johnson said. "Steal a base here and there, play some good defense, and offensively, I'll hit some balls hard, and sometimes they dive and catch it, and sometimes they fall in. That's just kind of the way it is, so minimize my strikeouts and I'll be able to be a serviceable player at this level."
On Friday, he followed the quick flip to retire Venable with arguably an even more impressive play a few innings later, ranging deep in the hole to haul in Chris Denorfia's cue shot up the middle and firing a strong throw to first that left Denorfia crouched in dismay up the first-base line. Both defensive plays caught Gonzalez's eye in a losing effort.
"He's showing some athleticism out there at second base," Gonzalez said. "When we got him, [Royals manager] Ned Yost told me that this guy's a pretty good second baseman, and so far, he's really been dead on."
On Sunday, Johnson was tabbed for his seventh consecutive start, having earned the majority of playing time at second as Dan Uggla has struggled to get comfortable following LASIK surgery in August. Each game Johnson sees time offers the 29-year-old utility man a chance to find new ways to contribute and keep himself in the lineup one way or another down the stretch.
"I'm getting plenty of opportunity here," Johnson said. "It's my job to make the most of it. I'm not really sure what exactly there is long-term, so I show up, and if my name's in the lineup, then I'll help the team win today and take it from there. Every day that you get an opportunity to play is an opportunity to showcase what you can do and potentially further your career and come up with building trust and other things of that nature with the skipper."
Reliever Downs pitching through the pain
ATLANTA -- Reliever Scott Downs will continue providing the Braves with a veteran lefty arm out of the bullpen, even though the pain in the fractured ring finger of his non-throwing hand may not fully subside until after the season. Downs missed just under a week of action after he took a line drive off his glove in the sixth inning of the Braves' Sept. 7 loss to the Phillies.
"I've got a brace that I put in my glove, but I can still feel it," Downs said. "It's not as bad as it was when I first did it. The swelling has gone down, so it's just a matter of what I can tolerate. It feels fine."
Downs stumbled in his return to the mound on Friday night, when he entered with two outs and a runner on second in the eighth inning of a tie game. San Diego pinch-hitter Logan Forsythe stepped in and took a 2-2 curveball into center field to push across the game-winning run, saddling reliever David Carpenter with the loss.
"When you take six days off -- when you take any days off, really -- you don't know how you're going to do, but I felt good out there," Downs said. "I made some good pitches and then made one bad one where he got enough on it."
• Tim Hudson joined his teammates in the clubhouse before Sunday's game, and he will accompany the Braves as they attempt to clinch the National League East over the course of a six-game road trip through Washington and Chicago this week. Hudson was cleared earlier this week to get out of the boot protecting his right ankle, but he won't be able to begin the majority of his rehab activities until October, when he will have a screw removed from the ankle.
Will he impart any wisdom on the young standouts in the rotation that have helped cut Atlanta's magic number to four entering Sunday?
"They're doing pretty daggum good right now," Hudson said. "I don't want to mess them up."
• Paul Maholm was relieved to evade any serious elbow issues when a contrast MRI exam taken last Wednesday revealed no structural damage after the left-hander had felt pain going back to his Aug. 28 start against Cleveland. Due to Freddy Garcia getting the start on Tuesday in Washington and Thursday's off-day, Maholm will be able to start Friday's series opener in Chicago against his former team with two additional days' rest.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.