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Transformation seemless for Johnson

    ATLANTA — Kelly Johnson looks like such a natural in his first month as the Atlanta Braves’ second baseman and leadoff hitter that it’s easy to forget he was a left fielder who usually was the team’s No. 2 hitter two years ago.
    Johnson is hitting .306 and ranks among the National League leaders with 19 runs and 17 walks. His .438 on-base percentage leads the Braves, and he has had two or more hits in six of his last nine games.
    Johnson’s emergence is a big reason Atlanta is contending for the NL East lead. The Braves, off Thursday, open a three-game series at Colorado on tonight.
    Johnson, 25, signed with the Braves as a shortstop and never thought about playing second base. Scouts believed Johnson (6-1, 205) had the size and power potential for other positions, however.
    ‘‘I always heard that if I didn’t play shortstop I would probably play third base or the outfield,’’ Johnson said.
    Braves manager Bobby Cox predicted before the season that Johnson could hit 20 homers this year, and that may prove to be a modest pick. Johnson is second on the team with five homers, including one in the team’s 4-3 loss to Florida on Wednesday night and two in a win over the New York Mets last Sunday.
    The power is a bonus. For now, the Braves are more interested in his ability to get on base and score runs.
    Johnson hit .241 with 9 homers and 40 RBIs in 290 at-bats as a rookie left fielder in 2005. He missed last season with reconstructive elbow surgery.
    Johnson’s chance at second base came after the team didn’t re-sign Marcus Giles.
    Johnson won the job in spring training, but then had to overcome a miserable 6-for-40 start.
    Johnson knew a .150 batting average wouldn’t keep him in the lineup or even on the Braves roster.
    ‘‘Something just had to change offensively,’’ Johnson said.
    The change followed advice from hitting coach Terry Pendleton.
    Johnson, a left-handed hitter, had not been making good use of his left hand — his top hand. As a result he was sweeping under the pitch with the lead of his right hand instead of swinging down on top of the ball in a more forceful motion.
    ‘‘My top hand has been nonexistent,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘Terry mentioned it. It didn’t make sense. I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t figure out how to make use of it.’’
    Then it all clicked.
    After collecting only six hits in Atlanta’s first 11 games through April 16, Johnson broke out of the slump with a 4-for-5 game on April 17 at Washington.
    Johnson followed that with two hits in each of the next three games. His batting average climbed with the six multi-hit games.
    Johnson is far more willing to accept walks than were the Braves’ last two leadoff hitters, Giles and Rafael Furcal. Giles had a .341 on-base percentage in 2006. Rafael Furcal had a .348 on-base percentage in 2005, his last year as Atlanta’s leadoff hitter.
    ‘‘I look at it as a fun thing to hit at the front of the order,’’ Johnson said. ‘‘It’s a pretty good lineup. I don’t have a lot of pressure as far as the offense goes. Mainly it’s be consistent and get on base as often as I can.’’
    Johnson’s strong start at the plate is nice, but perhaps the bigger surprise has been his defense at his new position.
    Some growing pains — and a few ugly plays — might have been expected, but instead Johnson has looked comfortable in the field.
    He worked out with Braves coach Glenn Hubbard every day for weeks before spring training and has been charged with only one error through 21 games.
    Johnson probably won’t reach every ball that was within Giles’ range, but Johnson has impressed Cox with his quick turns on double plays.
    There was reason for concern about Johnson’s return from Tommy John surgery, but his throws have been strong.
    Cox says he always knew Johnson could hit.
    ‘‘Listen, when he was in our minor leagues, he was our number one-rated hitting prospect,’’ Cox said. ‘‘So I know he’s going to hit. I’ve seen him. He’s got a great set up at the plate, stays on the ball, draws walks. And he can run.
    ‘‘His on-base percentage is number one. He’s doing a pretty good job of that right now.’’

Braves agree on contract extension for Smoltz
    ATLANTA — John Smoltz is likely to spend his entire major league career with the Atlanta Braves after agreeing to a contract extension Thursday.
    Smoltz, who turns 40 next month, will return for a 20th season in 2008 with a $14 million deal, part of which will paid this year as a signing bonus.
    The deal also includes a vesting option for 2009 and a club option for 2010.
    The right-hander is making $8 million this season. The deal was announced after the Braves arrived in Denver for the start of a three-game series against the Colorado Rockies on Friday.
    ‘‘Words can’t describe how thrilled I am to have the opportunity to finish my career as an Atlanta Brave,’’ Smoltz said. ‘‘I am thankful to the Braves organization for giving me the chance to play this long and to play out my entire career with one team.’’
    Smoltz, who could have been a free agent after this season, has a career record of 195-138 (.586) with 154 saves and a 3.28 ERA.
    He is one of only two pitchers — Hall-of-Famer Dennis Eckersley is the other — with at least 150 wins and 150 saves in his career.
    ‘‘This is a significant contract, both for the Braves and for John Smoltz,’’ general manager John Schuerholz said. ‘‘We are delighted that John will be a Brave for at least next season and hopefully well beyond that. Through an amazing stretch of success, John has been a huge part of our club, both with his pitching and his leadership. He will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.’’
    Smoltz won the NL Cy Young award in 1996 and has nine seasons with at least 14 wins. Also, he has more wins (15) and strikeouts (194) in the postseason than any other pitcher.
    ‘‘This is great news because John is such an important part of our ballclub,’’ manager Bobby Cox said. ‘‘He has been a dominating pitcher and leader in this league for years and is probably pitching as good right now as he ever has.’’
    Smoltz began his career as a starter, but moved to the bullpen in 2001. He spent three full seasons as the Braves closer, setting an NL record with 55 saves in 2002.
    Since returning to the rotation in 2005, Smoltz has gone 32-17 with a 3.34 ERA in 73 starts. He went 16-9 with a 3.49 ERA and 211 strikeouts last season.

Selig: Hopes to have Braves sales completed by next month
    ATLANTA — Baseball commissioner Bug Selig hopes the proposed sale of the Atlanta Braves will be finalized next month.
    Time Warner Inc. is selling the team to Colorado-based Liberty Media Corp. as part of a complex deal reached in February that values the team at $461 million.
    ‘‘We’re having intense discussions with all parties,’’ Selig said Thursday during a meeting in New York with the Associated Press Sports Editors. ‘‘There are some open items yet, but I think we’re moving. We’re moving hopefully toward a resolution.’’
    The deal must be approved by the baseball owners. They are scheduled to meet May 16-17 in New York.
    ‘‘One would hope that we’re done by then,’’ Selig said.
    Time Warner is expected to transfer the Braves, a group of craft magazines and $1 billion in cash to Liberty in exchange for about $1.27 billion in Time Warner shares owned by the Colorado company.
    The agreement, which was designed to minimize taxes, must be approved by three-fourths of the baseball owners.
    The Braves front office is expected to remain largely intact, with Atlanta-based president Terry McGuirk continuing to run the team and John Schuerholz staying on as general manager.

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