SAN FRANCISCO – In his first couple of series against the Giants at picturesque AT&T Park, Jason Heyward fared far better than most hitters, collecting a .458 with three homers and seven RBIs in six games at the spacious, wind-swept ballpark by the bay.
But when Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez posted his lineup for Thursday night’s series opener against the Giants, the big right fielder wasn’t in it.
Gonzalez told the team this week that he would play the matchups more and go with his hottest hitters during the stretch drive. Heyward has been one of his hottest hitters, but Gonzalez wanted to give him a rest and get another right-handed bat in the lineup against Giants left-hander Barry Zito. Reed Johnson got the start in right field.
Left-handers hit just .197 with two homers and a .555 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 122 at-bats against Zito before Thursday, while righties had a .275 average with 16 homers and an .826 OPS in 403 at-bats against the lefty.
Heyward had a .309 average with 33 extra-base hits (15 homres) and a .919 OPS in 71 games since June 1, and was 14-for-32 (.438) with six extra-base hits and seven RBIs in his past eight games before Thursday.
“He’s been unbelievable,” Gonzalez said. “Like I told Bourny [Mike Bourn], an off day right now is six innings. Heyward had an off day on homestand and ended up coming up in the sixth of seventh.
“[Heyward] has been great. He’s raised his game since we put him in that 3-hole. I don’t know if that’s just coincidence, but he’s been great.”
Heyward had had the resurgent season the Braves hoped for after his injury-slowed 2011. But there’s still a significant disparity between his stats against righties and lefties. He had a .317 average with 16 homers and .995 OPS in 262 at-bats against lefties before Thursday, and a .225 average with five homers and an .810 OPS in 182 at-bats against lefties.
Zito was 4-0 with a 1.64 ERA in his past five starts vs. Atlanta before Thursday, including seven scoreless inning (three hits) in a July 17 win. Heyward was 0-for-6 with two strikeouts against Zito.
“He’s not overpowering,” third baseman Chipper Jones said of Zito. “Take the guy up the middle and the other way. Basically take what he gives you and hope he makes a mistake to you. He’s had our number for the last couple of years. We’re going to have to make some adjustments. I see we’ve got a couple of more right-handers in the lineup tonight, so Fredi is sticking to his word to play the matchups.”
Giants pay tribute to Chipper
The Giants paid tribute to Jones in a ceremony before Thursday night’s series opener, with the P.A. announcer calling him a “future Hall of Famer” before Jones highlights were shown on the scoreboard video screen.
The retiring Braves third baseman surprised some observers when he was in the lineup despite a five-hour overnight flight from Washington following Wednesday night’s series-ending win against the Nationals.
“I feel OK,” Jones said. “Fredi texted me this morning to ask me how I was feeling. Quite frankly I didn’t know how I would feel, but I feel good enough to go out there tonight.”
The lefty knee that Jones had arthroscopic surgery on in the last week of spring training swelled up after flights early in the season, but that hasn’t been a problem recently.
“Yeah, now it’s more or less just activity [that aggravates it],” he said. “If we have a long game like we did there in Washington [on Monday], where we played 13 innings, the next day I didn’t feel real good at all. I had fluid in both knees. But it gradually subsides. So it shouldn’t be too big of an issue from a plane-flight standpoint.
“The issue is going to be, if I go out and get three or four hits and run the bases all night, and slide or whatnot. That’s when it hurts the next day.”
He smiled and said, “If I go out and go 0-for-4, have four strikeouts and don’t make any plays in the field, I feel great the next day.”
Thursday was a typically cool, breezy night by San Francisco Bay, after a 60-degree sunny afternoon.
“As a Southern boy liking the warm to hot weather, San Francisco wasn’t my kind of [weather],” said Jones, who nevertheless had a lot of good memories from games in the city. “Just some of the battles with the [Barry] Bondses and the [Jeff] Kents and watching those guys square off against [Tom] Glavine, [John] Smoltz and [Greg] Maddux was always a treat. To see some of the best pitchers of our era go up against some of the best hitters of our era.”
Jones entered the series with a .293 average, 23 homers, 86 RBIs and an .895 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 114 regular-season games against the Giants, including a .308 average and six homers in 22 games at old Candlestick Park and a .295 average and four homers in 28 games at AT&T Park, which opened in 2000.
Overbay on Triple-A roster
Triple-A Gwinnett added recently signed first baseman Lyle Overbay to its roster and placed first baseman Ernesto Mejia on the temporary inactive list. A team official said Mejia was not injured and was taking care of a “family matter.”
Overbay will be added to the major league team when rosters are expanded in September. Because he’s in the organization before the end of August, he will be eligible for the playoff roster if the Braves advance to the postseason. Overbay will give Atlanta another left-handed bat off the bench.