ATLANTA (AP) -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 and usually 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 Friday night.
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 while recovering from reconstructive elbow surgery.
Johnson's chance at second base came after the Braves didn't re-sign Marcus Giles.
Johnson won the job in spring training, but then had to overcome a miserable 6-for-40 start. He 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 managing 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 multihit 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. 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 No. 1-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 No. 1. He's doing a pretty good job of that right now.''

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