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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Heyward healthy, surging; J-Up returns to PHX

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  PHOENIX – Jason Heyward has the sortof overwhelming physical skills that can mesmerize when he puts them all together and stays healthy. And so it is that most baseball fans, no matter which team they pull for, can appreciate and enjoy watching the Braves right fielder on a surge like he’s had in recent weeks.

Heyward hit .299 with a .381 on-base percentage and five stolen bases in his past 30 games before Friday, including .330 (29-for-88) with three homers in his past 22 games. After struggling mightily in April, he has his average up to .254 and .339 — still quite a way to go, but inching closer to where he and the Braves hoped it would be this season.

Jason Heyward has stayed healthy all season, and lately he's consistently showing the skills that make him one of the game's exciting players when he puts it all together.

Jason Heyward has stayed healthy all season, and lately he’s consistently showing the skills that make him one of the game’s exciting players when he puts it all together.

“Just hitting-wise, I haven’t felt great,” Heyward said. “My swing’s fine but timing – I would like to get it a little better and a little more consistent. But it’s definitely going in the right direction.”

In the past month he’s displayed his wide range of what the scouts call “plus” skills: He has scorched line drives to all fields, galloped around the bases the way few others can – not to mention few of his immense size – and showed off his exceptional range and arm while playing Gold Glove-caliber defense again.

Heyward leads the major leagues in defensive runs saved with 17, the category that teammate Andrelton Simmons led the majors in last season on the way to winning the Platinum Glove as the Nationa League’s top overall defensive player.

Defense has always been of high importance to Heyward, who hasn’t let past offensive struggles affect him in the field.

“Absolutely, man,” he said. “I pay attention to the game — a whole lot. That can be a gift and a curse on offense, but on defense it definitely helps you out a whole lot. Watching the  hitters, watching the pitcher.  I mean, from inning one to inning seven (a pitcher’s) velocity can be different, and knowing which count…. Just having that mindset, that I can always impact the game somehow, some way, from my position in right field.”

Still, what seems to please Heyward as much as anything lately is how he’s been able to help take a little of the load off of teammate Freddie Freeman. The first baseman struggles so infrequently for any significant period, but Freeman has indeed hit a rough patch in recent weeks, batting .208 with no homers in his past 15 games, and with three three-strikeout games in eight.

Heyward and Freeman have been close friends since their years together as teammates and roommates in the minor leagues. While Heyward was the first to make the All-Star team – he did in 2010 when Freeman was still in Triple-A – Freeman has since become the steady standout, the 100-RBI man, top-five MVP vote-getter and No. 3 hitter in the lineup.

And Freeman is the guy who got the franchise-record contract this winter and the soaring expectations that go with that.

“I don’t feel like he should have to (carry the offense),” Heyward said. “Is he capable of it? Yeah. And that’s the luxury you have when you have players like that. But you don’t want them to have to do that all the time. Somebody else get something done.  And that’s nice to be able to say you’re doing that.

“Everybody can grind out an at-bat, whether it’s an out or not. I like the odds the more opportunities you get. You’re not going to come through every time, but each time you go out there trying to improve.”

While Freeman is widely viewed as the proverbial straw that stirs the Braves drink, and streaky Justin Upton has fueled the team’s offense for several stretches when he’s been hot, it should be noted that Heyward has hit .281 with a .363 OBP and 29 extra-base hits (11 homers) in 87 games since July 28, the day after he was moved to the leadoff role he still occupies.

The Braves were 54-33 in those games, and 14-15 in that period when Heyward was out of the lineup.

Watching Heyward from afar, it’s easy to forget he is 6 feet 5 and 245 pounds. He’s a special ballplayer but also a truly elite athlete — the kind that we in the United States have seen gravitate to other sports far too often in recent decades.

But the thing about Heyward that seems to have been misinterpreted or wrongly portrayed is how much he wants to get better, how much he cares about his team, and how he hates – although he would probably never say so publicly — that anyone would perceive his injury-caused absences from the lineup during his first four seasons as anything but injury-caused absences.

Anyone who says Heyward doesn’t love playing baseball or care deeply about winning probably hasn’t spent much time around him over the past few years and seen him mature and deal with setbacks including the broken jaw in August when he had his face smashed by a Jon Niese fastball one afternoon in New York.

Largely because of injuries, both nagging and serious ones, he hasn’t developed into the superstar that many in the industry thought he’d be by now, after being baseball’s No. 1 prospect and finishing a close second to Buster Posey for National League Rookie of the Year in 2010 (Heyward was Baseball America’s Major League Rookie of the Year).

But Heyward has stayed healthy through the first season’s first two months, and we’re seeing again what happens when he’s in the lineup day-in and day-out, when he can get into a rhythm and work instead of having his progress interrupted.

His .284 average, .373 OBP and .404 slugging percentage in May represented his best month with at least 20 games played since he had back-to-back months of .348/.379/.674 and .275/.359/.441 in June and July of 2012.

“He’s about as steady as it comes when he’s healthy,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “He’ll keep getting a couple of hits here and there, you make a mistake he’ll run you out of the ballpark. And at the end of the year he’ll be .285 with his normal (run-production) numbers.”

 J-Up back in Phoenix: The Braves hope that a return to Chase Field might shake Justin Upton out of his road-game doldrums this season. One of the best hitters in baseball at home this season – .380 with 10 homers, 26 RBIs, .460 OBP, .741 slugging percentage – has been inexplicably unproductive on the road (.194/.262/.344 with three homers, seven RBIs).

Upton was 5-for-10 with six RBIs and homers in three consecutive games May 18-20 against the Cardinals and Brewers. Since then, he has just one homer in 48 at-bats over 13 games, although he’s hit .313 with a .370 OBP, five doubles and eight RBIs in that stretch.

But this home/road disparity is rather remarkable, to have lasted this far into a season and show no signs of letting up.

Upton was 16-for-34 (.471) with five doubles, four homers, 14 RBIs and a .971 slugging percentage in 10 games May 18 through 27, including nine home games. Since then he’s gone 4-for-24 (.167) with one double, no RBIs, one walk and eight strikeouts in six games, including four road games at Boston and Miami.

These will be his first road games  of June. In 11 road games in May, he went 8-for-42 (.190) with one homer, one RBI, three walks and 10 strikeouts.

Of Upton’s three homers and seven RBIs in 24 road games this season, two of the homers and five of the RBIs came in a pair of road games April 19 at New York and April 30 at Miami. Think about it: A hitter as dangerous as he is, has one homer and two RBIs in his other 22 road games.

However…. Now he returns to Arizona, where he went 5-for-10 with a double, a homer and two RBis in a three game series May 13-15 in the Braves’ only visit to Chase Field since he was traded to Atlanta in January 2013.

The former Diamondbacks slugger, who this past offseason finished building his dream home in nearby Scottsdale, has a .308 career average with 68 homers, 221 RBIs and a .392 OBP and .551 slugging percentage in 367 games (1,307 at-bats) at Chase Field

He also had a three-hit game against the Diamondbacks during a three-game series at Turner Field in June, and he’s 9-for-22 (.409) with three walks and a .536 OBP in six games against them since the trade. The Braves are 4-2 in those games, including two losses in the series at Phoenix and a sweep in Atlanta.

There is streaky, and there is streaky: In their past five series, the Boston Red Sox got swept by Detroit, Toronto and Tampa Bay consecutively, then swept both the Braves (twice, or once if you call it a four-game series) and Rays, and then were swept this week at Cleveland. They lost 10 in a row, won seven in a row, now have lost three in a row again.

  More Heyward: On importance of Braves doing the little things, he said, “That’s the name of the game, to be honest with you, in the playoffs. You have to be able to win games 1-nothing. I know it won’t be 1-nothing, but you have to win them, 9-8, 7-6, 5-4. So defense absolutely sets you up to do that.”

On the mental side of defense, benefits of experience: “Physically, obviously I know I can cover range. There’s makeup speed and things like that. But I try to be in the right place at the right time. The pitcher-batter matchups start off somewhere. My thing is, I always expect the worst thing to happen (in the outfield). I aways expect to have to run over here and go get a ball, or expect to have to run in hard. You just want to have the right mindset. When you’re ready to make a play you expect bad throws, you expect things to happen, and just try and cut them off. That’s the way you keep it simple. Give yourself room for error.”

Confronting Snakes: Since the 2011 All-Star break, Braves are 12-4 with a 2.30 ERA and .292 batting average against the Diamondbacks, and have outscored them 88-37 and out-homered them 23-9 in that period.

The Dbacks had a .226 batting average and 5.29 ERA in those 16 games.

Hey, guess what? It's hot out here in Phoenix in June.

Hey, guess what? It’s hot out here in Phoenix in June. (AP photo)

The Braves are 4-3 in Arizona during that period, but lost two of three in their last visit to Chase Field in May 2013.

The team start a three-game series tonight here in sizzling Phoenix. It’s been 108 degrees the past few afternoons here, and should still be close to 100 at the first pitch. But the roof will be closed for all three games, it’s safe to assume. Certainly for Sunday, which is a day game.

The Braves no longer have Tim Hudson, who is 5-1 with a 1.59 ERA in his career at Chase Field, but they did add another pitcher, Evin Santana, who’s had some success in far more limited appearances against the Dbacks. Scheduled to start Saturday’s middle game, “Magic” is 2-0 with a 1.20 ERA in two starts against the Dbacks, and allowed two runs in six innings of his only start at Chase Field.

Sunday starter Aaron Harang is 3-8 against Arizona despite a solid 3.20 ERA. He pitched against them frequently as a Dodger and Padre.

Friday’s matchup: On paper, this one’s a mismatch — Braves ace Julio Teheran (5-3, 1.83 ERA) against righty Brandon McCarthy (1-7, 5.20).

Teheran is 3-0 with a 0.81 ERA and .185 opponents’ average in his past three starts, with 20 strikeouts, four walks and one homer allowed in 22 1/3 innings. Teheran’s ERA is third-lowest among qualifying major league starters, just behind the aforementioned ex-Brave Hudson (1.75) and Cincy’s Johnny Cueto (1.68).

By the way, Teheran now has a 2.99 career ERA in 49 games including 2.91 in 46 starts (5.87 in three relief appearances). He’s 20-12 as a starter including 1-1 with a 2.25 ERA in three career starts vs. Arizona and 0-1 with a 3.60 ERA in two at Chase Field.

McCarthy is0-4 with a 5.36 ERA in seven home starts, despite racking up 40 strikeouts with only seven walks in 45 1/3 innings. He’s allowed 50 hits including six homers in seven home starts, and the Dbacks scored no runs while he was in four of those games and one run while he was in another.

McCarthy has never faced the Braves, nor has Sunday starter Chase Anderson (4-0, 3.32 ERA). Meanwhile Arizona’s starter starter is lefty Wade Miley (3-6, 4.85 ERA), who is 0-2 with an 11.81 ERA in three games (two starts) against the Braves.

So yes, the matchups in this series would appear to be in the Braves’ favor. Of course, that’s sometimes the kiss of death. So nevermind we said anything.

  Since ATL’s fast start: The Braves went 17-7 with a stunning 2.04 ERA in their first 24 games, despite batting a modest .245 with 29 homers and 89 runs (3.7 per game).

Since then, they’ve gone 14-20 with a 3.68 ERA,  batting .236 with 26 homers and 110 runs in 34 games (3.2 per game).

And how about the disappointing Diamondbacks, who took out some frustrations this week while sweeping the suddenly skidding Rockies in Denver. The Dbacks hit a ridiculous .403 while outscoring the Rockies 32-17 in three games.

Arizona totaled 28 runs and 39 hits in the last two games at Coors Field. Yes, 28 runs and 39 hits in two games. They pounded the Rockies 16-8 on Wednesday and 12-7 on Thursday.

This after the Dbacks had batted .220 with seven homers while going 5-8 in the two weeks before destroying Denver, and scoring three runs or fewer nine times in that 13-game stretch.

Speaking of Freeman:  He was 5-for-8 with four RBIs and homers in consecutive games against St. Louis and Milwaukee May 18-May 19. Since then Freddie is 11-for-53 (.208) with six extra-base hits (no homers), four RBIs, 12 walks and 15 strikeouts, and a higher OBP (.354) than slugging percentage (.340).

He has 11 strikeouts in 32 at-bats over his past eight games.

Also, the performance of the guy at the other corner, Chris Johnson, has become alarming. The third baseman is 14-for-70 (.200) with one homer, no walks, 20 strikeouts and a .197 OBP in his past 18 games.

Kimbrel’s chase comes to Chase:  Braves closer Craig Kimbrel is just one save from breaking John Smoltz’s franchise career record, and so now it appears that will happen on the road instead of at Turner Field after the Braves were swept in two by the Mariners this week.

Facing the Diamondbacks, particularly at Chase Field, would not have been the first (or 15th) scenario we would’ve predicted for him to break the record:  Kimbrel has far and away his worst career ERA (4.82) against the Diamondbacks; his only other one as high as high as 2.40 is against Reds (3.09). And his 8.10 ERA in four appearances at Chase Field is his highest at any current ballpark, and topped only by the 8.31 he had in five appearances at the Marlins’ former home.

* Here’s one from Alice Cooper, who grew up in Phoenix. And watching this, I’m in junior high (middle school) all over again.

Well we got no choice
All the girls and boys
Makin all that noise
‘Cause they found new toys
Well we can’t salute ya
Can’t find a flagurl
If that don’t suit ya
That’s a drag

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces

No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher’s dirty looks

Well we got no class
And we got no principles
And we got no innocence
We can’t even think of a word that rhymes

School’s out for summer
School’s out forever
School’s been blown to pieces

No more pencils
No more books
No more teacher’s dirty looks

Out for summer
Out till fall
We might not go back at all

School’s out forever
School’s out for summer
School’s out with fever
School’s out completely

 

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