Heyward takes next step toward return: BP against a pitcher

WASHINGTON – The slumping Braves want badly to get Jason Heyward back atop their lineup, and took unusual measures Wednesday to enable him to take the next step in his return from a broken jaw.

The Braves had minor league pitcher Mark Lamm fly to Washington from his home in Nashville just to throw about 30 pitches of batting practice to Heyward, the first time he hit against an actual pitcher since having his jaw broken by a 90-mph fastball from Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese on Aug. 21.

“Good to get that going, good to see something coming from a (pitcher’s) arm, and off a mound,” said Heyward, who began taking batting practice Friday, but until Wednesday had only faced coaches throwing 50-55 mph from behind a screen on flat ground in front of the mound.

The Braves haven’t mapped out a specific plan or timetable for his return to major league games, and Heyward said his main thing is that he’d like to play at least some regular-season games before the playoffs begin. He said he still needs to get his legs and reactions closer to game speed, and on Wednesday he also ramped up his running and pursuit of fly balls hit during Braves batting practice at Nationals Park.

Team officials planned to discuss options to get more real batting-practice pitching for Heyward, either from one of the extra pitchers with the team on its expanded September roster or by bringing in another minor leaguer. Braves general manager planned to talk to manager Fredi Gonzalez, hitting coach Greg Walker and Heyward before Wednesday night’s game against the Nationals.

“Kind of see where we are and still continue to look at what the progression should be or can be,” Wren said. “It’s a very fluid situation, because you’re trying to do what’s best for him and what’s best to get him ready, and also being mindful of his health and how he feels.

“I’ve heard it went very well today. We’ll see what we do next.”

Regarding a possible return date for Heyward, Wren reiterated that there wasn’t one yet.

“I think he wants to get back as soon as he can, and I think we want to get him back as soon as we can,” he said. “The want and the need is on both sides. Just have to wait until it kind of plays out its course.”

The Braves still haven’t ruled out sending him to the instructional league in Florida, but Heyward preferred what they did Wednesday, which permitted him to continue doing his other running and agility drills and stay with the team.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he said. “For me, being able to get some work done here without having to take time to go somewhere else and miss out on some time and take away from the process. So I’m glad we were able to get that done here.”

Lamm threw from the mound and used all his pitches, including fastballs that he estimated were close to the 92-93 mph range that he typically threw during the season. The right-hander had a 2.93 ERA in 53 relief appearances between stops at Double-A Mississippi and Triple-A Gwinnett, with 70 strikeouts and 36 walks in 68 innings.

Ronnie Richardson, Braves director of minor league operations, called him Tuesday and asked if he could get to Washington to lend a hand in the Heyward project. Lamm, 25, has continued pitching since the Triple-A season ended because he’s penciled in for winter ball in Venezuala. He worked out at Vanderbilt, where he played college ball.

“The biggest thing is just go in there and throw strikes,” Lamm said of his assignment. “Jason’s going in there to get his swings. I was trying to make sure I was giving him something competitive. I wan’t up there trying to battle anyone. I was up there to help get him ready to go.”

Asked if he felt any pressure not to let one get away up and inside, Lamm said, “I don’t think so. You just go up there ready to pitch, and try to throw the ball over the plate and give him what he needs. Hopefully he got what he needed out of it. He was up there swinging, just trying to get back in the rhythm of things.”

Heyward lined a ball to the gap on his first swing, and said his pitch recognition was good despite his recent layoff.

“I saw everything out of his hand pretty well,” Heyward said. “Just appreciative that he came up to do it for me. It’s kind of everybody’s job to get something done, think outside the box a little bit (due to) the part of the season we’re in right now. Need to get something done, and we got it done. Just happy we were able to.”

Walker watched Heyward’s session from a few feet away outside the batting cage.

“It was good — real good,” the hitting coach said. “I think the big thing now is timing, and he looked pretty much on time today. He hit some line drives…. With Jason I always look at timing, because that’s his big issue that he fights, and he looked pretty good today. He felt good about it. Looked fine. I was very pleased. We’ll see where we go from here.

“He did about as good as someone could do in that situation. He got something out of it. He got after it. He lined some balls up pretty good.”

It’s difficult to overstate how much the Braves have missed Heyward in the four weeks since he got hurt. He had been hot at the plate since the first week of June, but particularly after moving into the No. 1 spot in the lineup in late July. He proved to be a galvanizing force after the Braves had exhausted every other leadoff option before turning to the 6-foot-5, 240-pound right fielder.

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.

In 25 games since losing Heyward, the Braves were 12-13 and batted .227 with 20 homers and 78 runs (3.1 per game). They were 4-9 with a .199 team average in 13 games before Wednesday, and had scored two or fewer runs in seven of those 13.

“When Fredi moved Jason to the leadoff spot, I didn’t dislike it, but I just didn’t think it was going to be that big a deal,” Walker said this week. “But the thing that I think Jason did – first off, the leadoff spot I think has been our biggest deficiency. Everybody talks about our strikeouts, but the lack of a leadoff hitter to get on base, to me, has really been our biggest miss. When he filled that, he was efficient getting on base. But the bigger part to me was, when a 6-foot-5, 240-pound man steps up there to lead off, it says, ‘OK, the fight’s starting on the first pitch.’

“He competes at a high level. He gets after it. Even when he’s not going good, he competes. And it’s just like, he set the tone for the rest of our at-bats the rest of the day. ‘OK, it’s game on.’ We’re not wondering what’s going to happen. You’re not putting certain guys up there and wondering, OK, what’s he going to do today? All you know is when Jason stepped up there, the fight’s on, baby. We’re starting right now on the first pitch, and we’re coming after you.

Other Braves have mostly failed in the leadoff role. Jordan Schafer was having strong season before he fouled a ball off his right ankle and suffered a stress fracture that put him on the DL for five weeks. He was 15-for-92 (.163) with three extra-base hits and a .238 OBP in 27 games since returning, including 1-for-24 with 10 strikeouts in his past nine games before Wednesday.

B.J. Upton’s first season with the Braves has been unimaginably bad. He was 1-for-28 with four walks and 14 strikeouts in his past nine games before Wednesday, and had hit .153 (13-for-85) in his past 29 games with one homer, six RBIs, 37 strikeouts and a .229 OBP.

Braves leadoff hitters have a collective .245 average and .305 OBP, third-worst in both categories before Wednesday. Without Heyward’s .341 average in 88 at-bats in the leadoff spot, all other Braves leadoff hitters had a collective .226 average average.

Simmons gets a rest: Shortstop Andrelton Simmons was out of the lineup Wednesday after Gonzalez said he woke with neck tightness Tuesday morning and felt it throughout both losses in Tuesday's doubleheader.

He said it didn’t contribute to Simmons’ two errors Tuesday — a ninth-inning fielding error that let in the last two runs of the opening game, and a throwing error in the second game — but Gonzalez didn’t want the neck tightness to become a lingering issue. With the Braves off Thursday, he’ll have two days to rest before Friday’s series opener against the Cubs at Chicago.

Gonzalez said Simmons might be brought in for late-innings defense if the Braves led Wednesday. Elliot Johnson got the start at shortstop, with Dan Uggla at second base.