The conversation was casual, as usual. It always is with Ryan Flaherty.

“Doing good,” he said on the phone last week. “Just getting ready to go out to the field.”

He talks as if he’s headed for a pick-up game. The “field” is 41,000-seat SunTrust Park in Atlanta, where Flaherty is sizzling as one of the top hitters in the National League in his new role as a third baseman for the Braves.

Entering Saturday’s game, Flaherty was leading the league with a .362 average.

“It’s nice,” Flaherty said.

Hitting .362? Nice? Yeah, that’s one way to put it.

Flaherty, 31, is once again demonstrating he belongs in the major leagues. The Portland native scrambled for a job this winter, becoming a free agent after six seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. Flaherty signed a minor-league deal with Philadelphia, but opted out of the contract in late March when he was not offered a spot on the Phillies’ major league roster.

He eventually landed in Atlanta – which needed an infielder after injuries – three days before the season began. Flaherty signed a one-year deal.

The Braves knew they were getting versatility in Flaherty. But who figured a career .215 hitter was going to break out at the start of 2018?

New approach? New team? New league?

“I think you can attest to all those things,” Flaherty said, adding one more factor: He’s injury-free now.

“The biggest thing in the offseason was getting my arm healthy,” said Flaherty, who missed much of last year because of shoulder tendinitis. Flaherty already has more plate appearances in 2018 than he did in 2017.

As long as Flaherty is hitting, he’ll stay in the starting lineup. Unlike his utility days in Baltimore, Flaherty walks into the Atlanta clubhouse knowing his name will likely be on the lineup card.

“All my years in Baltimore, I kept hearing ‘If only you could play every day …’ But there are a lot of good players, and they all want to be in the game,” he said.

“In that (utility) role, (the lineup) could change every night. It’s good to be able to get in there every day and take advantage.”

Flaherty has always been even-keel, whether he’s batting .162 or .362. He is quick to tap the brakes.

“It’s only the first couple of weeks,” Flaherty said. “It’s a long season. You got to grind it every day.”

Flaherty is hardly settled at third. Going into the season, Johan Camargo was the incumbent third baseman after hitting .299 in 82 games last year, and he was activated last week after a stint on the disabled list because of a strained oblique muscle. Also last week, the Braves signed free-agent slugger Jose Bautista to a minor league contract, with the idea of him playing third base.

But if Flaherty keeps hitting, he’ll stay in the lineup, maybe in a super-utility role.

That’s fine with Flaherty, who likes that his team is an early contender with an 11-8 record.

“We’re winning,” he said. “You can’t replace that.”

Flaherty hasn’t been to the postseason since the Orioles made it to the 2014 American League Championship Series. In 11 career playoff games, he has a .281 average with two home runs.

BAUTISTA HAS played third base plenty of times, including 394 games in the majors. Hadlock Field fans may remember Bautista as a minor leaguer with Altoona, when he was the starting third baseman for the South team in the 2005 Eastern League All-Star Game in Portland. Bautista went 0 for 3.

Bautista, 37, and Flaherty have one thing in common – they were both Rule 5 draft picks of the Baltimore Orioles, although Flaherty stuck with Baltimore for six seasons.

Bautista was taken by Baltimore in December of 2003 but was waived the following June and picked up by Tampa Bay.

Tracking Bautista’s trek through baseball is interesting, especially in a dizzying 2004:

Initially drafted by the Pirates in 2000, Bautista was taken by the Orioles (2003), was grabbed off waivers by the Rays (June 3, 2004), then purchased by the Royals (June 28, 2004), and finally traded twice on the same day (July 30, 2004), first to the Mets, then to the Pirates.

Bautista remained with the Pirates (including his Eastern League All-Star appearance in 2005), until he was traded on Aug. 21, 2008, to the Blue Jays. He re-signed with Toronto last year, but could find no job this season until the Braves picked him up.

Kevin Thomas can be reached at 791-6411 or:

[email protected]

Twitter: ClearTheBases

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