Jason Heyward returns earlier than expected

Thirty days after his jaw was broken by a fastball, Heyward was activated and inserted in the Braves’ lineup in center field and the leadoff spot for Friday’s series opener against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

He went o-for-2 with a walk and a 10-pitch strikeout and came out after five innings, as planned.

“It wasn’t hard to get up for that game,” Heyward said. “Lot of fun. Had a blast. Glad we could win today.”

Braves players didn’t think Heyward was returning before Monday, until they saw his name in the lineup Friday.

“It was awesome,” closer Craig Kimbrel said. “We didn’t know. We’ve been asking for a while, since he hit (batting practice) in D.C., when he was going to get back out there. He didn’t tell anybody until they wrote it on the board today. It’s exciting. Him at the leadoff spot really makes our offense roll.”

Heyward said before the game, “I know I’ll be better than I will be today in five days, but you have to start the process somewhere, and I’m happy to start it this soon.”

He was a galvanizing force in the leadoff spot before getting hit in the face by a 90-mph fastball from Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese, sustaining two fractures that required surgery.

The offense struggled mightily without him. The Braves were 13-13 while averaging two fewer runs in 26 games without him than they had averaged while going 18-4 in the last 22 games with him.

Heyward began taking batting practice only a week ago and hit for the first time against a pitcher Wednesday at Washington when the Braves flew in minor leaguer Mark Lamm to throw batting practice.

They were going to have him face pitcher David Hale on Thursday on the team’s off day, but the Cubs said the field was too wet after morning rain. So it was one live-batting practice session and into the lineup for Heyward.

“I just felt that the only thing left to do was get in the games,” said Heyward, who wore a customized batting helmet with a protective guard attached to the right ear flap.

The Braves eagerly awaited the return of Heyward, who hit .357 with six doubles, five homers, 15 RBIs and a .426 OBP in his last 22 games before he got hurt. That 22-game stretch began the day after he was moved to the leadoff spot.

They discussed activating Heyward later this weekend, but when he got to the ballpark Friday, he said he was ready. The plan is to ease him back in the lineup by having him rest or pinch-hit Saturday, play part of Sunday’s game, then be ready for the season-ending seven-game homestand that starts Monday.

“It is a process as far as getting your legs back under you and playing the full game,” Heyward said. “But the fact that we can (start) that today, and we still have a full week of games at home, that’s a nice thing to know.”

After Heyward’s injury and surgery, there was no guarantee he would be ready to play again before the regular season ended, but he and the team had always hoped he would be back to play at least a few games before entering the postseason. In the last week or more, that prognosis improved quickly and significantly.

“There was no schedule,” general manager Frank Wren said. “It was a process that we were going to let kind of progress, and each time he made a progression we would kind of re-adjust and see where he was. Probably one of the biggest steps was having the live BP a couple of days ago where he got to face pretty close to game speed and see how he felt.”

Gonzalez said, “The biggest thing is to make sure his legs are fine, after sitting around for five weeks. He’s been running and doing stuff to get ready, but that’s a little different than standing in the outfield for three hours. I’m sure that’s going to be challenge for us, to make sure he stays healthy.”

Some hitters who’ve been hit in the face by pitches have struggled to varying degrees with the psychological aspect of returning and getting over any fear of being hit again.

“There was no indication that that part was much of an adjustment for Jason,” Wren said. “You start looking for signs and we never saw any of them.”

Freeman watch: First baseman Freddie Freeman, who hit a three-run homer Friday, is batting .310 with 22 home runs and 103 RBIs and could be the first Brave to finish with at least a .300 average, 20 homers and 100 RBIs since Chipper Jones (.337/29/102) in 2007.

“Consistency,” Gonzalez said of Freeman, who has started 20 consecutive games and 56 of 57. “Day in, day out. The guy plays every game; he gives you great at-bats. And his defense is pretty darned good, too.”

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