The Braves went 13-13 and averaged 3.1 runs per game in the 26 games since Jason Heyward has been out of the lineup with a broken jaw.
Photo: Jason Getz
Photo: Jason Getz

Heyward returns soon than expected, teammates thrilled

CHICAGO – Jason Heyward is back, a bit sooner than expected.

Thirty days after his jaw was broken by a fastball, Heyward was activated and and inserted in the Braves lineup in center field and the leadoff spot for Friday’s series opener against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

He went o-for-2 with a walk and a 10-pitch strikeout and came out after five innings, as planned.

“It wasn’t hard to get up for that game,” Heyward said. “Lot of fun. Had a blast. Glad we could win today.”

Braves players didn’t think Heyward was returning before Monday, until they saw his name in the lineup Friday.

“It was awesome,” closer Craig Kimbrel said. “We didn’t know. We’ve been asking for a while, since he hit (batting practice) in D.C., when he was going to get back out there. He didn’t tell anybody until they wrote it on the board today. It’s exciting. Him at the leadoff spot really makes our offense roll.”

Heyward said before the game, “I know I’ll be better than I will be today in five days, but you have to start the process somewhere, and I’m happy to start it this soon.”

He was a galvanizing force in the leadoff spot before getting hit in the face by a 90-mph fastball from Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese, sustaining two fractures that required surgery.

The offense struggled mightily withouthim. The Braves went 13-13 while averaging two fewer runs in 26 games without him than they had averaged while going 18-4 in the last 22 games with him.

Heyward only began taking batting practice a week ago, and hit for the first time against a pitcher Wednesday at Washington when the Braves flew in minor leaguer Mark Lamm to throw batting practice.

They were going to have him face pitcher David Hale on Thursday on the team’s off day, but the Cubs said the field was too wet after morning rain. So it was one live-BP session and into the lineup for Heyward.

“I just felt that the only thing left to do was get in the games,” said Heyward, who wore a customized batting helmet with a protective guard attached to the right ear flap.

The Braves had eagerly awaited the return of Heyward, who hit .357 with six doubles, five homers, 15 RBIs and a .426 OBP in his last 22 games before he got hurt. That 22-game stretch began the day after he was moved to the leadoff spot.

They discussed activating Heyward later this weekend, but when he got to the ballpark Friday he said he was ready. The plan is to ease him back in the lineup by having him rest or pinch-hit Saturday, play part of Sunday’s game, then be ready for the season-ending seven-game homestand that starts Monday.

“It is a process as far as getting your legs back under you and playing the full game,” Heyward said. “But the fact that we can (start) that today, and we still have a full week of games at home, that’s a nice thing to know.”

After Heyward’s injury and surgery, there was no guarantee he’d be ready to play again before the regular season ended, but he and the team had always hoped he’d be back to play at least a few games before entering the postseason. In the last week or more, that prognosis improved quickly and significantly.

“There was no schedule,” general manager Frank Wren said. “It was a process that we were going to let kind of progress, and each time he made a progression we would kind of re-adjust and see where he was. Probably one of the biggest steps was having the live BP a couple of days ago where he got to face pretty close to game speed and see how he felt.”

Gonzalez said, “The biggest thing is to make sure his legs are fine, after sitting around for five weeks. He’s been running and doing stuff to get ready, but that’s a little different than standing in the outfield for three hours. I’m sure that’s going to be challenge for us, to make sure he stays healthy.”

Some hitters who’ve been hit in the face by pitches have struggled to varying degrees with the psychological aspect of returning and getting over any fear of being hit again.

“There was no indication that that part was much of an adjustment for Jason,” Wren said. “You start looking for signs and we never saw any of them.”

Heyward was 11-for-33 with four homers and 10 RBIs in his 10 previous games at Wrigley Field.

“That’s just kind of an added bonus,” he said Friday morning.

Freeman watch: First baseman Freddie Freeman, who hit a three-run homer Friday, is batting .310 with 22 home runs and 103 RBIs and could be the first Brave to finish with at least a .300 average, 20 homers and 100 RBIs since Chipper Jones (.337/29/102) in 2007. Freeman has also started 20 consecutive games and 56 of 57.

Jason Heyward is back, a bit sooner than expected.

Thirty days after having his jaw broken by a fastball, the Braves activated Heyward and inserted him in the lineup in center field and the leadoff spot for Friday afternoon’s series opener against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

“I’m just really excited and happy to back on the field again,” he said Friday morning. “I know I’ll be better than I will be today in five days, but you have to start the process somewhere, and I’m happy to start it this soon.”

He was a galvanizing force in the leadoff spot before getting hit in the face by a 90-mph fastball from Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese, sustaining two fractures that required surgery and two metal plates inserted to aid the healing.

The Braves’ offense has struggled since he went on the disabled list, and backup catcher Gerald Laird said it looked like a real lineup again with Heyward’s name atop it Friday.

“That was nice,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said of penciling in Heyward’s name. “Just to get him in there, get him some at-bats and get his legs under him. Give him the possibility of seven to 10 games (before the season ends). There’s no place else to do it. Could send him to the instructional league, but they don’t start (playing games) until next week.”

Heyward only began taking batting practice a week ago against coaches, and hit for the first time against a pitcher Wednesday at Washington when the Braves flew in minor leaguer Mark Lamm to throw batting practice to him.

The Braves were going to have him face pitcher David Hale in batting practice Thursday on the team’s off day in Chicago, but the Cubs said the field was too wet after morning rain. So it was one live-BP session and into the lineup for Heyward, who told Gonzalez on Friday morning that he was ready to play.

“I just felt that the only thing left to do was get in the games,” said Heyward, who will wear a customized batting helmet with a protective guard attached to the right ear flap, extending across his face where it was fractured.

“Due to the circumstances of our season, that we have some wiggle room, and the fact that we also have something to play for after this, I (wanted to) begin that process today,” he said.

Heyward hit .357 with six doubles, five homers, 15 RBIs and a .426 OBP and .607 slugging percentage in his last 22 games before Niese broke his jaw in two places. That 22-game stretch began the day after he moved to the leadoff spot.

The Braves went 18-4 in those 22 games, batting .267 with 25 homers and 114 runs, an average of 5.2 runs per game.

They were 13-13 since then, batting .228 as a team and averaging 3.2 runs per game in those 26 games without him.

Braves general manager Frank Wren, who has traveled with the team on its two-city trip to Washington and Chicago, was asked if it was nice seeing Heyward’s name back at the top of the lineup.

“Absolutely,” he said. “It gets us one step closer to having our team intact.”

The Braves considered activating Heyward later this weekend, but when he got to the ballpark he said he was ready. Gonzalez said he could pinch-hit if he wanted, and Heyward said if he played he wanted to get more than one at-bat.

They decided on five innings or three at-bats, whichever came first. The plan is to ease him back in the lineup by having him rest or only pinch-hit Saturday, play part of Sunday’s game, then be ready for the season-ending seven-game homestand that starts Monday.

“It is a process as far as getting your legs back under you and playing the full game,” Heyward said. “But the fact that we can (start) that today, and we still have a full week of games at home, that’s a nice thing to know.”

After Heyward’s injury and surgery, there was no guarantee that he’d be ready to play again before the regular season ended, but he and the team had always hoped he’d be back to play at least a few games before entering the postseason. In the last week or more, that prognosis improved quickly and significantly.

“As we told you guys from the very beginning, there was no (timetable),” Wren said. “It was a process that we were going to let kind of progress, and each time he made a progression we would kind of re-adjust and see where he was. Probably one of the biggest steps was having the live BP a couple of days ago where he got to face pretty close to game speed and see how he felt. He felt like he was ready.”

Gonzalez said, “He feels good about it. The biggest thing is to make sure his legs are fine, after sitting around for five weeks. He’s been running and doing stuff to get ready, but that’s a little different than standing in the outfield for three hours. I’m sure that’s going to be challenge for us, to make sure he stays healthy.”

Some hitters who’ve been hit in the face by pitches have struggled to varying degrees with the psychological aspect of returning and getting over any fear of being hit again.

“There was no indication that that part was much of an adjustment for Jason,” Wren said. “You start looking for signs and we never saw any of them. It was just a feel thing, and that’s why we couldn’t nail down a date (initially for his return). We had hoped – in the last week or so – that it would be as early as this weekend or as late as Monday, to give him enough time.”

Heyward has thrived in his previous visits to Wrigley Field, going 11-for-33 with four homers and 10 RBIs in 10 games, with a .425 OBP and .758 slugging percentage. But that didn’t play into the decision to return Friday.

“I didn’t think about that at all,” he said. “That’s just kind of an added bonus.”

Freeman watch: First baseman Freddie Freeman, who hit a three-run homer Friday, is batting .310 with 22 home runs and 103 RBIs and could be the first Brave to finish with at least a .300 average, 20 homers and 100 RBIs since Chipper Jones (.337/29/102) in 2007. Freeman has also started 20 consecutive games and 56 of 57.

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