LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Jason Heyward began Wednesday batting .190 with a .250 on-base percentage for the spring, but by the end of the day there was plenty of reason for the Braves and their right fielder to feel good about the direction he seemed headed.
He’s had games recently that didn’t look as good in the boxscore as on the field, but Wednesday he got results.
Heyward had two hits including a tying two-run homer in the ninth inning, and prevented three runs with a home run-saving catch in the third inning and a running catch in shallow center for the last out of the Braves’ 5-5, 10-inning tie with the New York Yankees.
““He did everything,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He showed us what he can do, he really did. He gave us a little appetizer hopefully for the season … because he’s a big part of our offense.”
Someone asked if Heyward wished Wednesday’s game had come in the regular season, which begins next week.
“At this point for me it kind of feels like the regular season,” he said. “We’re down to the last six [spring training] games now. You want to get ready to go and you want to have those kind of at-bats and have those kind of defensive plays already in your mind and having already physically made them.
“I wish it was the regular season, but it kind of feels like it anyway.”
After following up his terrific rookie season in 2010 with a disappointing and injury-marred second season, the Heyward project began in December when he went to work breaking down his swing and getting back to basics with his personal hitting coach.
It moved to the next stage in January when he went to work in the Turner Field batting cages with the new Braves hitting coaches, Greg Walker and assistant Scott Fletcher, along with regular appearances from veteran third baseman Chipper Jones.
Swing adjustments were made, balance was regained, mental reminders were driven home – stay inside the ball, wait on the pitch, use the whole field – and Heyward set out to apply them against live pitching when spring training began.
Good results were frequently absent, as the numbers indicate. But Heyward’s batting practice sessions were much better than a year ago, and in games the frequency of good at-bats began to increase steadily, even if the OBP didn’t.
“He’s been working so hard, and if you follow him every day and not [focus on] the boxscores you see it,” Gonzalez said. “You see the aggressiveness that he’s showing at the plate. The good at-bats are getting closer and closer. They’re bunching up. From Day 1 in spring training you can see it. His attitude’s been terrific.”
In the past two weeks the Braves and Heyward have been pleased by his performances, including a game Tuesday against the New York Mets in which he had five good plate appearances despite only one hit. He worked counts, hit balls hard, was a tough out — and reacted to pitches instead of thinking so much about the process.
“I would say it’s [felt] natural for about two weeks straight consistently,” he said before Wednesday’s game. “Because there were times [before] where I would go up there and react, and then other times during the game where I was thinking again. Now it’s, we’re going to go up there and relax. We’re not thinking too much, we’re going to relax, see pitches. It’s all about the timing. Then you can work from there to set up everything else.
“It’s been good. The last two weeks have been an improvement.”
Then came Wednesday. He had a single off starter Hiroki Kuroda and hit an opposite-field homer to left-center with one out in the ninth off right-hander George Kontos, Heyward’s third homer of the spring.
But the play of the day wasn’t his homer or Freddie Freeman’s fifth homer in three games. It was Heyward racing back and scaling the eight-foot right-field wall, the 6-foot-5 outfielder reaching over to bring back Raul Ibanez’s would-be two-run homer to prevent a tough third inning from spiraling on Braves starter Brandon Beachy.
“My first instinct was, there’s a home run,” Beachy said. “I just look at Jason to see if he’s even going to turn around, and then instantly I just knew he was going to catch the ball. You could just tell. He had it. Man, he made that catch look easy. He made it look like a four-foot picket fence.”
Pretty big wall to go up and over, a reporter said to Beachy.
The pitcher smiled and said, “Pretty big man.”
Heyward moved over to center in the ninth inning. With runners at second and third and two out in the 10th, Gustava Molina hit a sinking liner to center. It looked like trouble for the Braves, with the runners going on two outs. But Heyward bounded in to make the game-ending catch.
“We thought for sure it was going to drop in and score two runs,” Gonzalez said. “Heyward got a great read and came in and got it.”