Like most everything else in his life, Jason Heyward’s 23rd birthday celebration started a little early.
Heyward was serenaded by his teammates with a rendition of “Happy Birthday” in the visiting clubhouse at Citizens Bank Park Wednesday night, an hour and a half before midnight when he officially turned 23. He got a cake too.
The Braves were off on Thursday, his actual birthday, before opening a three-game series Friday in New York. So why not stretch out the celebration as long as possible? Heyward is coming of age.
The Henry County High graduate has been in the major leagues for three years. He’s already seen quite a bit. From his moon shot into the Braves bullpen on his first major league swing and getting voted into the All-Star game as a 20-year-old rookie, to stretches on the bench last season in favor of Jose Constanza during an injury-plagued sophomore season.
Heyward has always seemed like an old soul. Now he’s starting to play like it.
“He’s maturing as a person and how he approaches the game,” Braves hitting coach Greg Walker said.
Walker and Heyward first met face-to-face last winter, and the stakes were high. Between a shoulder injury and another year exposed to major league pitching, Heyward’s batting average had plummeted 50 points to .227. Still, the Braves had stood relatively pat and were counting on Heyward to right himself and boost their offense from within.
Walker was a big part of that plan. One of his main qualifications for taking over as hitting coach was coming up with a strategy for what to do about the scuffling right fielder. His first step in that process was lunch.
“I bought that day,” Walker said. “I told him, ‘At the end of the year, we’re going to come back and we’re going to have a lunch and next time you’re going to buy.’”
They ate steaks at Chops in Buckhead, no small investment. When they go back, they’ll be reminded just how far they’ve come.
“It feels like we’re onto something,” Heyward said.
Heyward’s average is back up to .269 this year. He has matched the home run total of his breakout rookie season already, with 18, which is tied with Brian McCann for the team lead.
Heyward is second behind Michael Bourn with 67 runs scored. He’s stolen a career-high 15 bases. He’s tied with Hunter Pence for the lead in assists among National League right fielders with nine. And he’s played the best defense of his young career, prompting Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez to say Wednesday: “I can’t see a better right fielder in the league than him.”
Most importantly, Heyward has spent the past six weeks hitting in the No. 3 hole, the most demanding spot in the lineup. He’s impressed the Braves outgoing No. 3-hole hitter Chipper Jones with what he’s done with the inside pitch this year, “recognizing what is a strike and what is not inside,” Jones said.
He’s impressed his new hitting coach with his ability to weather the ups and downs.
“He’s had a perfect attitude,” said Walker, who preaches it’s OK to get mad but not to get frustrated. “Learning to deal with failure at this level is a must. You don’t have to like it, but you can’t let it beat you, and he’s done a great job for a 22-year-old kid. He really has.”
Coming up through the minor leagues, Heyward didn’t know much about failure. So last season, struggling with a shoulder injury and not producing came as a shock. It only got worse as he kept getting beat on the inside pitch, then stopped hitting the outside one too.
But Heyward is using that experience now, and he’ll continue to going forward.
“(I’ve got to) keep being patient with myself,” Heyward said. “Just keep trying to minimize the lows and make sure there’s more good than bad.”
There’s been plenty good lately. Heyward left his mark all over the Braves’ past three series wins against the Marlins, Astros and Phillies. He put his speed to use by scoring five runs from first base in a stretch of five games, including four times on doubles and once even on a McCann single.
He made the catch of the day Monday against the Phillies to save extra bases with two runners on for Ben Sheets. He also started the seventh-inning rally to rescue Tim Hudson Wednesday night with a double off the center field wall against tough left-hander Antonio Bastardo.
Heyward hit a 368-foot shot in the ninth inning Monday for his fourth home run in 12 games. When asked what the recent power was a result of, Bourn interjected from the next locker over: “Being a beast.”
Heyward laughed. Then he answered the question in his own way.
“It’s a product of time,” he said. “Getting at-bats and going forward. Just becoming a little bit smarter, a little bit more seasoned.”