BRADENTON, Fla. – After grounding out and striking out in his only plate apeparances Friday in the Braves’ Grapefruit League opener, Jason Heyward worked on his timing Saturday when he and the Upton brothers had an afternoon off.
The work paid off quickly. Heyward belted a line-drive home run to straightaway center field in the sixth inning Sunday against Pittsburgh, before the Pirates scored seven runs late in a 9-2 exhibition win against the Braves at McKechnie Field. Heyward's home run landed at least 20 feet beyond the "400" sign in center.
“To do that you’ve got to do some things right, especially straightaway center field,” Heyward said. “That’s the biggest thing for me is to make adjustments, how quick I can make them. It’s Game 2. In Game 1 I didn’t feel like I took bad swings, I just felt like my timing was a little off. So yesterday that’s what I did, just worked on timing a little more.”
B.J. Upton had a double and beat out an infield single for his first two hits as a Brave, while Justin Upton went 0-for-3 and is hitless in five at-bats.
“We’ve had some good (at-bats),” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, whose Braves have been outscored 19-5 through three games, with most of the runs allowed coming against pitchers not likely to make the Opening Day roster. “I thought Justin, his last AB was a good AB. Jason obviously had a great AB on that ball he hit to straightaway center, and B.J. So that’s coming.”
Heyward homered on a fastball from right-hander Mark Melancon that was in the outer part of the strike zone.
“Good swing,” Heyward said. “Nice line drive. Use the whole field, get good pitches to hit, put good swings on the ball, and a lot of good things like that will hopefully happen.”
They did last season in his third year in the majors. Heyward bounced back from an injury-plagued 2011 season in convincing fashion, hitting .269 with career-highs in doubles (30), triples (six), homers (27), RBIs (82) and slugging percentage (.479). He also won his first Gold Glove and had a career-high 21 stolen bases.
Still only 23, the 6-foot-5, 235-pound right fielder now comports himself like a veteran. Gonzalez brought in backup outfielders in the middle of the sixth inning Sunday, and after Heyward finished some sprints on the outfield warning track, he signed autographs in the bottom of the sixth for fans lined up along the railing down the third-base line.
“It’s fun to watch young players mature on the field and off,” Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said. “He’s a man. He’s very mature. I had some great conversations with him this winter about what he learned from last year. And it was him doing the talking and me listening. You never figure this game out completely, but he’s moving down the road. He wants to be a great baseball player. Not just a hitter, not just a defender. He wants to be a baseball player.
“And he’s putting in the effort and he’s got the courage to do it. That’s a big word, because a lot of young players just want to survive and have some success and all the stuff that goes with success. But it takes a special player to want to be great, and I think he’s got that in him. That’s what excites me about his future.
“There’s players that you can’t wait to see every day, and he’s definitely one of them. You can’t wait to see him walk in the cage every day. He’s got all the tools and the makeup to be a special player.”