The 2013 Atlanta Braves were never hotter than when Jason Heyward was filling the leadoff spot in late July and early to mid-August, but since the 24-year-old outfielder went on the disabled list with a broken jaw after being struck by a fastball from New York Mets starting pitcher Jonathon Niese on Aug. 21, the club just hasn’t been the same.
“We lost a big piece, but teams lose that a lot of times,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez told the Associated Press at the time of Heyward’s injury. “We’ve got plenty of candidates.”
Utility man Elliot Johnson and outfielders Jordan Schafer and B.J. Upton have shared time in the no. 1 spot in the batting order over the past month, but none of them have experienced the success that Heyward enjoyed during his time at the top of the lineup.
Which is why it was a godsend when the four-year pro was activated from the DL and placed in the leadoff spot for the opening game of a three-game weekend series with the Chicago Cubs on Friday in Chicago.
Not only that, but the importance of Heyward coming back with 10 games remaining before the playoffs cannot be overstated. Given that he hasn’t seen major league pitching since taking one to the jaw, the fact that he’ll have the chance to see perhaps 30 or 40 at-bats prior to the postseason is huge, and could mean that he will just be hitting his stride come October.
More importantly, the Braves could also just be hitting theirs.