MIAMI — For the fifth time in eight games, hot-hitting rookie Jose Constanza was in the Braves’ lineup in right field instead of Jason Heyward on Tuesday, Heyward’s 22nd birthday.
Handling his recent part-time status better than some of his fans online, Heyward said he fully understood the move by manager Fredi Gonzalez.
“We need to win,” he said. “We need the best team possible on the field. We’re 8-1/2 games back or something like that, and I’m not sure how many we’re up in the wild card, but we need to win as many games as possible. [Gonzalez] has been patient with me, as has everybody.”
Heyward was hitting .222 with 12 homers, 30 RBIs and a .317 on-base percentage in 88 games before Tuesday, while Constanza had a .421 average with three extra-base hits, five RBIs and a .436 OBP in 10 games since arriving from Triple-A on July 29.
Heyward homered Sunday at New York, and was 8-for-43 (.186) in his past 13 games before Tuesday. Since returning June 15 from a 3-1/2-week stint on the disabled list for a sore shoulder, he had a .229 average with five homers, 16 RBIs and a .318 OBP in 43 games.
Heyward said neither the shoulder nor any other health issue was affecting his current performance.
He said not being in the lineup every day had allowed him to work more in the batting cage. He’s been trying to simplify his swing and approach, with the aim of not having to think so much when hitting in games.
“I’m working right now, as far as my [approach],” he said. “But at the same time, while I’m working to try to be productive the rest of this month and September, you want to have the best team you can have on the field. That’s what he’s doing. We’re trying to win ballgames, no doubt about it.”
Heyward said he spent two hours working with Chipper Jones and hitting coach Larry Parrish in the batting cage last weekend at New York.
“Now that I have a little bit more free time, I’m able to clear my head some more and get rest,” he said. “It’s positive. Everybody sees I’m the same guy in the clubhouse. It’s not about me. I’m here for the long run, and hopefully I can get back to where I’m producing on a daily basis.”
Gonzalez said he spoke with Heyward a few weeks ago in Colorado about the possibility of the Braves acquiring a corner outfielder before the July 31 trade deadline and how it could affect his playing time.
The Braves instead traded for center fielder Michael Bourn, after injuries to Jordan Schafer and Nate McLouth. When Constanza was brought from Triple-A and excelled in his first-ever major league games, Gonzalez decided to keep playing him while hot.
Constanza can play all three outfield positions, and has started five games in right field and three in left on the trip. He had an eight-game hitting streak before Tuesday.
Gonzalez has admired Heyward’s attitude through the whole situation in recent weeks.
“He’s been terrific,” the manager said. “I spoke to him [Monday] about it. It’s a tough situation, when you try to work yourself out of a slump or tinker with your swing [while at same time trying] to compete in the major leagues and produce.
“I spoke to him about it yesterday and he said, ‘Skipper, I understand. I’m working.’ I said I know. He’s onboard, and his attitude has been great. His work has been terrific….
“Constanza’s getting an opportunity and he’s playing well. Like I said, you’ve got 50 games left in a pennant race, you’ve got to try to put the best guys that you think can help you win those games. That’s Constanza right now, and next week it may be Heyward. Hopefully. Because he’s a big piece for us.”