Port St. Lucie, Fla. – Jason Heyward made a full impact in 4-1/2 innings Tuesday in the opening game of a Braves spring training that feels like the beginning of the J-Hey Era.
The rookie from McDonough reached base in all three plate appearances and was alert on the bases in a 4-2 Braves loss against the New York Mets on Tuesday.
“Three really good at-bats,” manager Bobby Cox said of Heyward, who walked in the first inning, singled and stole a base in the third, and walked in the fifth.
Braves starter Tommy Hanson and Kris Medlen each pitched two scoreless innings of one-hit ball, and the Braves led 1-0 through four. But a patchwork Mets lineup rocked Jesse Chavez for three runs in the fifth in the Grapefruit League opener for both teams.
Postgame discussion in the Braves’ clubhouse centered around Hanson, last year’s Braves rookie phenom, and Heyward, this year’s model and baseball’s top-rated prospect.
“Everybody knows he belongs,” catcher Brian McCann said of Heyward, Baseball American’s 2009 minor league Player of the Year. “It’s just a matter of getting used to the big-league pitching, how quick the adjustments are made.
“But he’s the best 20-year-old I’ve ever seen.”
He didn’t hit any tape-measure homers like he has during car-denting batting-practice displays at Braves camp. But he scorched a single down the right-field line that drew a few oohs and ahhs.
Former Mets star and broadcaster Keith Hernandez called it a “Willy McCovey shot,” and Cox said it was “the hardest-hit single you’re ever going to see in your life.”
Cox seemed more pleased by something that’s not in the boxscore: Heyward, at 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds, hurried to second base on wild pitches in the first and fifth innings.
“He went to second twice on balls in the dirt, just like he did last spring,” Cox said. “And he stole a base. He did everything good today.”
Heyward stole third in the third inning, showing good speed and quickness for someone so large.
“I try to play the game right, do whatever it takes,” said Heyward, known as “J-Hey” at Henry County High School. “That’s a situation where the guy’s at the plate and we’ve got an opportunity to be on third base with less than two [outs].
“As far as speed goes, I just want to do whatever it takes to win. I don’t want to ever slack off on that [speed], because that’s always something that can help.”
Cox said: “He’s not a [prolific] base stealer, but he can steal bases. Because he works at it. Instinctively, he can shuffle off and go. That’s what we teach all the time. Some guys get it, some don’t. That’s why he’s ahead of the game.”
His combination of power and high on-base percentage are what separate Heyward from many hitting prospects, but it’s defense and little things that Cox said could be what wins him the right-field job despite his lack of experience.
Heyward is 20 and has only 173 at-bats above the Class-A level in the minors.
“He’s solid in the outfield,” Cox said. “Solid arm, solid runner, and solid defense. And we know he’s going to hit.
“He’s a guy, if he doesn’t hit he helps you in the field.”