WASHINGTON – Just when it seemed like Jason Heyward might be “old” news at age 21, making room in the spotlight for the opening day debuts of rookies Freddie Freeman and Craig Kimbrel, here came that familiar mighty swing.
After introducing himself to Major League Baseball last opening day with a monster home run on his first swing, Heyward was back turning heads Thursday with a first at-bat homer to help the Braves beat the Nationals 2-0.
Heyward took his time getting his first home run this year. Two swings.
And this time Freeman was “in the hole” in the Braves dugout to enjoy it.
“Again?” Freeman said he kidded his friend when Heyward returned to the Braves dugout. “I was just happy for him. A little cutter, he said. He drove through that with his top hand. It’s pretty impressive to see from the side angle like that. He hit that ball hard. Got to, to hit it out in this weather.”
Heyward joined former New York Met Kaz Matsui as the only other player in major league history to homer on opening day in his first two seasons, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Remarkably, Matsui homered in his first at-bats as well, in both 2004 and 2005, including against the Braves’ Russ Ortiz as a 28-year-old rookie fresh from Japan.
“That’s what, two guys?” Heyward said. “That’s pretty cool.”
No way was Thursday’s home run going to be able to touch what Heyward did a year ago. That was a blast of an estimated 460 feet into the Braves bullpen, it was a three-run shot, and it was the first of his major league career.
“The element of surprise it brought to the stadium,” Heyward recounted. “We’re at home, my family, my friends were there, the way my teammates reacted after it – it was all awesome. You can’t relive that.”
But the one Thursday had plenty of substance too. It doubled the Braves lead to 2-0 against Livan Hernandez to lead off the second inning, giving Braves pitchers a little more cushion to work with the rest of the way.
It also made a great souvenir for a Braves fan sitting in the second row in right center field at Nationals Park.
With his booming shot on April 5, 2010 off a fastball from the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano, Heyward became the youngest player to homer in his first major league at-bat since 1950 when a 19-year-old Ted Tappe did it for the Reds.
With his encore performance Thursday, he had to generate a little bit more power on his own. He hit a 2-1 cut-fastball that registered 77 mph on the radar gun. Still, he put a charge into it.
He’d fouled off the first offering from Hernandez, looked at back-to-back fastballs out of the zone, then punished the pitch Hernandez left up.
“The last home run I got off Livan, I think he did the same thing – just got a pitch up,” said Heyward, who now has two home runs in 12 at-bats against Hernandez. “Fortunately I hit a mistake.”