It’s not all bad for Jason Heyward. Even with three strikeouts and a hitless day in six plate appearances in his 2013 Triple-A debut Thursday, the Gwinnett Braves see potential in him and will let him make the trip to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. No demotion for this fellow.
“Yeah, that’s good,” he said, smiling.
If there was an ideal way for Heyward to begin his rehab assignment from an appendectomy, this probably wasn’t it. His first game in 19 days following an emergency appendectomy came in a Triple-A game, against a knuckleball pitcher, with a 10:30 a.m. start (one of those lovely scheduling quirks we see in the minors the day before a long road trip and when accommodating “Education Day” for middle-schoolers on a field trip).
This is how it went for Heyward on Thursday: strikeout, ground out, strikeout, strikeout, walk, popup to the catcher. Total: 0-for-5 and reached base once. The opponent was the Red Sox of Pawtucket, not Boston.
The good news is he doesn’t aspire to be MVP of the International League, anyway.
“It felt good just to be back out there,” said Heyward, who underwent surgery in Denver on April 22. “It felt weird to be out there. Sitting down for two weeks is not the ideal thing to do, but I’m just glad to get the process started and get some at-bats.
“You’re just trying to get accustomed to seeing the ball. It’s like spring training. I have had any at-bats in a while. From at-bat to at-bat, you just want to see more pitches.”
There’s a progression to these things. The closet full of slightly disturbed and chemically unbalanced Heyward bashers will seize on days like this and begin making trade suggestions. But spend almost three weeks without facing a live pitch, and it’s amazing what goes. Against minor-league pitchers, Heyward had to remind himself where to hold his hands, when to stride, what the proper mechanics were for his swing.
“It a little hard to hit when you’re thinking about all of those things,” he said.
It showed. In the first inning against knuckleballer Steven Wright, he badly whiffed on a 2-2 whiffle-ball pitch. In the third, he grounded out weakly to second. In the fourth, after working the count full against Wright, he looked at strike three on the outside corner. Heyward stood at the plate for a minute as if he was preparing to argue the call, but then walked to the dugout.
“I’m not going to argue now, and certainly not here (in the minors),” he said. “That was a good pitch. The best he threw me today.”
Steven Wright the comedian would’ve been more entertaining. (From Wright’s catalogue: “Right now I’m having amnesia and deja vu at the same time. I think I’ve forgotten this before.”)
Pawtucket changed pitchers. Didn’t matter. Heyward struck out on a 1-2 pitch by Chris Carpenter. In the eighth and ninth against Ryan Rowland-Smith, he drew a four-pitch walk and hit a foul popup to end the game.
(Side note: Gwinnett lost 14-9. The G-Braves’ first two pitchers, Roman Colon and Cole McCurry, allowed 10 runs in four innings. Unless Colon and McCurry also were suffering from appendicitis, they provided a wonderful lesson for all of the youths in attendance: Stay in school.)
Everybody wants to know when Heyward will be ready to return to the majors. One game indicates he’s not close. He says this is all about timing. Physically, he feels fine and has been for about a week now. His conditioning and strength are back.
“It’s just a matter of being in sync again,” he said. “Getting to the point where you’re doing things naturally. Like thinking. If I’m up there thinking, like, ‘OK, my hands are here,’ it’s going to make it more difficult than if I’m just playing.”
Heyward wasn’t excelling with the Braves before he started to feel ill a few weeks ago. He hit .121 in 17 games with two homers and 12 strikeouts in 58 at-bats. But the importance of numbers often are overstated in April, May and even June.
The real question is where he goes from here. He is scheduled to DH again Friday night at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, but he hopes to play in the outfield soon.
As for how many games he will play with Gwinnett, he said, “It’s irrelevant. It’ll be until I feel I’m ready to go. … I’ve never done this before. It’s just a feel thing. It’s just about when instinct takes over.”
Until then: next stop — Scranton.