The slumping Braves want badly to get Jason Heyward back atop their lineup, and they used 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, Tenn., to throw about 30 pitches of batting practice to Heyward, the first time he hit against a 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 faced only coaches throwing 50-55 mph from behind a screen in front of the mound.
The Braves haven’t mapped out a specific plan or timetable for his return to games, and Heyward said his main thing is to play at least some regular-season games before the playoffs begin. He also ramped up his running and pursuit of fly balls hit during Braves batting practice Wednesday at Nationals Park.
Team officials planned to discuss options to get more 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 arm. Braves general manager Frank Wren planned to talk to manager Fredi Gonzalez, hitting coach Greg Walker and Heyward before Wednesday night’s game.
“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.”
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 his running and agility drills with the team.
Lamm threw from the mound and used all his pitches, including fastballs he estimated were close to the 92-93 mph range 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.
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 (because of) the part of the season we’re in right now. Need to get something done, and we got it done.”
Walker watched Heyward’s session from a few feet away.
“Real good,” the hitting coach said. “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. He did about as good as someone could do in that situation. He lined some balls up pretty good.”
Heyward had been hot at the plate since the first week of June, but particularly after moving into the No. 1 spot in late July. He proved to be a galvanizing force after the Braves had exhausted every other leadoff option before turning to him.
He hit .357 with six doubles, five homers, 15 RBIs and a .426 OBP and .607 slugging percentage in his last 22 games, beginning the day after he moved to the leadoff spot. The Braves went 18-4 in those games, batting .267 with 25 homers and 114 runs, an average of 5.2 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 scored two or fewer runs in seven of those 13.
“Everybody talks about our strikeouts, but the lack of a leadoff hitter to get on base, to me, has really been our biggest miss,” Walker said. “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, and he set the tone for the rest of our at-bats the rest of the day. 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.”
Simmons gets a rest: Shortstop Andrelton Simmons was out of the lineup Wednesday after Gonzalez said he woke Tuesday morning with tightness in his neck and felt it throughout both losses in Tuesday’s doubleheader. He said it didn’t contribute to Simmons’ two errors Tuesday, but Gonzalez didn’t want the tightness to become a lingering issue.