LAKELAND, Fla. – Jason Heyward remembers his first home run in a major league uniform, a mammoth drive against Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer in a spring-training game at Lakeland in 2010. Heyward was a rookie and Scherzer was three years away from winning the American League Cy Young Award.
Heyward did it again Thursday at Lakeland’s Joker Marchant Stadium, driving a long homer onto the metal roof of the building beyond right field that houses the Tigers’ batting cages. It was a game-tying, bases-empty shot off left-hander Duane Below in the third inning of a 5-2 Grapefruit League loss.
“I saw it leave,” Heyward said, “but I did not see it land.”
Braves starter Kris Medlen had just gone to the clubhouse after pitching his scheduled two innings.
“I walked outside and one of the Detroit guys was like, ‘Did you see Heyward’s homer?’” Medlen said. “I wish I did. I heard it was an absolute bomb. I think he did that here his first or second spring training with us.”
Anyone else at Joker Marchant Stadium on March 8, 2010, who saw Heyward take Scherzer deep probably remembers it — that ball sailed more than 450 feet before landing on the same metal roof and bouncing over the entire structure.
“I remember that one,” Heyward said, smiling. “Shoot, hasn’t been that many years yet. I definitely remember most of my at-bats. Today, I hit that one well. Any day, I feel like if I hit it like that, it’s going out. I did my job there, tried to get a good pitch to hit, be on time, and squared it up.”
If any of those same fans from 2010 spring training were at the stadium Thursday, Heyward gave them another homer to remember, and put another dent in that roof. The ball didn’t have enough momentum to skip over the top of angled roof, but it appeared to sail at least as high in the air as the 2010 homer.
It was his first homer of the spring and came in the Braves’ second game and his fourth at-bat. Perhaps most importantly, it came against a lefty. Not a greaty lefty, but a lefty.
“That’s good, because you’re going to see lefties every game, especially late in the game,” Heyward said. “It’s good to feel comfortable, good to have at-bats against them to where I’m at least making them throw pitches over the plate and get me out that way. I hit the ball hard a couple of times today, both off lefties, so that’s good.”
The left-handed-hitting Heyward is continuing to wear the protective attachment to his helmet to cover the lower right side of his face that he wore at the end of the 2013 season, after having his jaw broken by a 90-mph fastball from Mets lefty Jonathon Niese on Aug. 21.
He had to have surgery, missed a month of the playoff race, and still has two metal plates in his jaw.
“I think most of his at-bats this spring have been off left-handers, which is good to see,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “ I don’t have any reservations at all from last year’s broken jaw — we saw that right away, that it had no effect. But it’s good to see him have some at-bats against left-handed pitching.”
Heyward pounded a 2-2 fastball from Below, a non-roster invitee who had a 4.27 ERA in 43 major league games (three starts) over the past three seasons with Detroit and Miami. Heyward hit a hard groundout to first base off lefty Ian Krol in the last of his three plate appearances.
After hitting 18 homers as a rookie, 14 in an injury-marred 2011 season, and a career-high 27 homers in 2012, Heyward had 14 again in another injury-shortened season in 2013.
“He’s a dude with a bunch of pop,” Medlen said of Heyward. “He’s athletic, and when hits one, he hits them pretty good. We expect a lot out of him this year. More of those (home runs like Thursday’s), that’s for sure.”