Braves notes: Heyward returns with a bang

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Jason Heyward returned to the Braves lineup Thursday night after missing the past four games with back stiffness.

He got loose by reaching base three times in three at-bats and launching his first home run of the spring, a two-run shot to the bullpen in right field, one of three Braves’ home runs in a 7-6 win over the Nationals. He also reached on a hit by pitch and a walk.

Heyward said he had been ready to return Wednesday, but Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez gave him an extra day of rest.

“He’s learning how to manage it,” Gonzalez said. “Our medical staff is helping him through it. But it sure is nice to have him in the lineup. He can do what he did today.”

Heyward said he was examined by a team physician Wednesday who told him he was predisposed to back soreness because he had less cartilage between the discs of his spine than most, but that he couldn’t further injure himself by playing.

Heyward said the doctor had seen an MRI of his spine from 2009, when Heyward’s Arizona Fall League stint was cut short by back soreness.

“He told me it’s bone structure vs. muscle or anything like that, nothing to be torn,” said Heyward, who hadn’t played since his back stiffened Saturday in batting practice, a scheduled day off for him. “If I can’t tear anything or do anything worse, I’ll play, and that’s what I told Fredi [Wednesday].”

Heyward, who said he first dealt with back pain at age 15 or 16, plans to change his routine the rest of the spring, cutting out early work and doing extra stretching with a physical therapist.

Jones ready to break camp

With two weeks to go before opening day, Chipper Jones declared himself ready now, surgically repaired left knee and all.

He hit his third home run of the spring Thursday on a solo shot to center field, doubled, and made two nice plays in the field -- one a bare-handed play on a slow-roller, another on a stab of a line drive.

“I’m not even thinking about the knee because it’s not an issue,” Jones said. “I have no pain in the knee whatsoever. ... I feel like I turned a corner about 2 1/2 weeks ago. I’m just really excited to get this season started right now.”

Jones leads the Braves in homers (three) and RBIs (11) this spring. Freddie Freeman followed his homer four batters later with his first home run of the spring on a two-run shot to center as well.

But it was Nate McLouth who drew Jones' highest praise after the game. McLouth had two more hits Thursday to raise his spring batting average to .367 (11-for-30).

Lowe pleased to start opener

For the third time in three years as a Brave, Derek Lowe will be the opening-day starter. While he downplays the importance of who goes where in this rotation -- Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson were logical candidates, too -- he acknowledges the role means a lot to him, especially at age 37.

“The longer you play, even to be considered, even have a chance to do it is an honor on a very competitive team,” Lowe said.

Lowe has allowed one run in 14 innings this spring for an 0.64 ERA, tops among Braves starters. He has continued the work he started last September when he went 5-0 in five starts with a 1.17 ERA to win pitcher of the month in the National League.

“It’s encouraging to know that you’re doing the same things you were able to do at the end of last year,” Lowe said.

Marek, Gearrin among cuts

The Braves announced a second round of roster cuts Thursday, optioning pitchers Cory Gearrin, Stephen Marek and Anthony Varvaro to Triple-A Gwinnett.

They reassigned five more to the minor league camp: left-hander Yohan Flande, catcher Wilkin Castillo, infielder Shawn Bowman and outfielders Brent Clevlen and Jose Constanza.

Marek is the most notable because he had been in the conversation for the final bullpen spot. Marek had allowed only one run in 6 1/3 innings this spring but walked five.

“Marek is a guy that during the course of the year -- this is what I told him -- we’re going to need pitching,” Gonzalez said. “I would feel comfortable for him to pitch in a major league game right now. He’s a big part of this organization, and I think we’ll see him in the major leagues.”