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David O'BrienDavid O'Brien

Braves’ Heyward provides a jolt at leadoff

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PITTSBURGH – Given his druthers, Jason Heyward sounds as if he clearly would’ve preferred to stay in the fifth spot in the batting order instead of moving back to leadoff. But the Braves haven’t come up with a better leadoff option than their big guy, who started Monday’s 7-3 win against the Pirates with a home run, the third time he’s done that in a game this season.

He still feels like he can do more to influence a game from the middle of the order, even though he had a very big influence from atop the order Monday with three hits and a sacrifice fly.

I feel like it’s harder from the leadoff spot. For me,” he said after Monday’s win. “There’s less moving runners over and less sac-fly situations, all those things.”

But….

Jason Heyward led off Monday's win at Pittsburgh with a homer, the third time he's done that this season.

Jason Heyward led off Monday’s win at Pittsburgh with a homer, the third time he’s done that this season. (AP photo)

“But when I’m able to, it’s awesome. Because the guys feed off of it,” he said of impacting things from the leadoff spot. “It’s just kind of good to get the ball rolling. Get that immediate pressure on the (opposing team).”

The latter aspect is what Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren both raved about last summer, after Heyward became the latest and most improbable of options the Braves tried at the leadoff spot in 2013. And the most successful. He and the offense took off after Heyward moved to the leadoff spot on July 27, 2013.

He hit .345 (30-for-87) with six doubles, five homers, 15 RBIs, 24 runs and a .418 OBP and .586 slugging percentage in his next 23 games while batting leadoff, and the Braves were 19-4 in those games with a reenergized offense and bolstered playoff aspirations.

That run ended abruptly when Heyward got smashed in the right side of his face by a fastball from Mets lefty Jon Niese on Aug. 21, requiring a one-month stint on the DL and surgery that included the attachment of metal plates to his broken jaw.

This season, Heyward has nine homers in 300 at-bats from the leadoff spot, and one homer in 155 at-bats outside of the leadoff spot including 154 at-bats batting fifth. However, he has a .292 average, .385 OBP and .396 slugging percentage from the fifth spot, compared to .257/.334.387 slash line at the leadoff spot.

Bottom line: The Braves have won five of six games including four in a row since Heyward was switched back from fifth to leadoff, and manager Fredi Gonzalez sounds as if he’s not going to be moving the right fielder out of the No. 1 spot again anytime soon. Understandably, he likes having the 6-foot-5, 245-pound Heyward be the first batter that opposing pitchers face.

“With Jason we’ve said don’t change your approach, whether you’re hitting in the middle of the order or leadoff,” Gonzalez said Monday. “Just go out and be aggressive, get on base and do some damage. He can do a lot of stuff, and we’re a good club when he’s up there. Right off the get-go a pitcher has to contend with a guy that can run you out of the ballpark.

“It’s nice, and we’ll keep running him out there.”

So, that appears settled for the time being.

Now, the lefty thing.

It’s the uncomfortable question that will keep coming up as long as Heyward struggles to the degree that he has this season against lefties: He’s hit just .157 (18-for-115) against lefties, the worst average in the majors among those with enough at-bats to qualify for rankings, while his team-best .306 average (104-for-340) is tied for ninth-best in the National League. Heyward has a .391 OBP and .444 slugging percentage against righties, and a .228 OBP and .226 slugging percentage against lefties.

The Braves on Tuesday face Pirates lefty Francisco Liriano, against whom Heyward  is 0-for-3 with three strikeouts.

Heyward still wears a protective guard attachment on his batting helmet that extends out from the ear flap and protects the right side of his face so he can’t be hit again in that same spot where his jaw was broken. But he insists – and has since returning at the end of last season – that there is no mental block, no fear that’s affecting his performance against lefties.

Rather, Heyward thinks it has more to do with the fact that the Braves just haven’t faced many lefties – true, they have not – and thus he hasn’t been able to get into a groove against them, particularly since so many of the ones they’ve faced have either been above-average to outstanding lefty starters or lefty relief specialists.

The only time he faced Liriano was in Heyward’s stellar 2010 rookie season. Heyward hit .249 in 173 at-bats against lefties that year, with six homers and a .356 OBP and .399 slugging percentage. (He hit .291 with 12 homers in 347 at-bats against righties as a rookie, with a .411 OBP and .484 slugging percentage. Yes, it was a very good rookie year.)

His average vs. lefties dipped to .192 with two homers in 104 at-bats in his injury-plagued sophomore season in 2011, when he hit only .227 overall with 14 homers and a .319 OBP and .389 slugging percentage.

In his third season in 2012, Heyward hit .224 with seven homers  in 237 at-bats against lefties (compared to .300 with 20 homers in 350 at-bats against righties).

And last season, Heyward actually hit better overall against lefties than against righties, posting a .264/.347/.455 slash line with three homers in 110 at-bats against lefties and .250/.350/.415 with 11 homers in 272 at-bats against righties. That’s what has made his decline vs. lefties this season all the more glaring.

He said Monday that he’s felt a little better in his recent at-bats against lefties.

“I feel like there were some inconsistencies when I wasn’t getting to face (many of) them,” Heyward said. “And it’s tough, obviously, to face shutdown lefties out of the pen regardless, but when you have to face them without getting at-bats off (lefty) starters it  makes it that much tougher.”

• J-Hey vs. Pirates: If he’s going to have a big game against a lefty, doing it against a Pirate at PNC Park seems more likely than most other options. First, there are Heyward’s career stats against the Pirates: .344 (33-for-96) in 24 games with nine extra-base hits, four home runs, 13 RBIs, 10 walks, 13 strikeouts, .407 OBP and .531 slugging percentage.

Those are his second-best figures in average, OBP and slugging percentage against any NL teams, trailing only the .363/.425/.627 line he has in 27 games against the Padres. His third-best is .289/.381/.515 in 29 games against San Francisco.

Then, his stats in 12 games at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, where Heyward has hit .395 (17-for-43) with two homers, six RBIs, a .460 OBP and .558 slugging percentage.

The Braves have won their past four games against the Pirates, and in those games Heyward is 9-for-18 with a double, two homers and four RBIs.

• Tonight’s matchup: It’ll be Aaron Harang (9-7, 3.51) facing the aforementioned Pirates lefty Francisco Liriano (3-9, 3.78).

Harang got his first loss in nearly two months Wednesday when the Dodgers tagged him for seven hits and five runs in 4 1/3 innings, only the third time he allowed more than two earned runs in his past 10 starts and the first time he lasted fewer than six innings in that period.

Now he’ll try to get his first win in nearly six weeks. He’s 4-1 with a 3.08 ERA in his past 10 starts, a stretch that included wins in four consecutive starts followed by five consecutive no-decisions before last week’s loss. The Braves have lost his past six starts.

Harang is 3-0 with a 3.09 ERA in his past five road starts, allowing two earned runs or fewer in all but one of those games.

Against the Pirates, he’s 15-7 with a 4.19 ERA in 26 starts, having faced them frequently during his years with the Reds. Harang’s only start against them during the past two seasons was in May 2013 at Pittsburgh, where he gave up five hits and two runs in six innings and got a loss.

Lefty batters have a .313/.383/.425 slash line vs. Harang, compared .231/.290/.359 by right-handed batters.

Against Harang, Russell Martin is 6-for-13 and Andrew McCutchen is 5-for-14, while Pedro Alvarez is 1-for-11 with five strikeouts.

Liriano has a 2.43 ERA and .172 opponents’ average in his past 10 starts, but just a 2-3 record in that span because of scant run support and some early exits. The Pirates scored 3.2 runs per nine innings that  he pitched in that 10-game period, and Liriano lasted five or fewer innings in four of those starts. However, he’s worked six innings or more in each of the past six.

The lefty lost his past two starts despite allowing only two runs and three hits in each – in seven innings against the Padres and in six innings at Detroit, where he had nine strikeouts and four walks. The Pirates scored just one run during the 13 innings that he was in those two losses.

Liriano is 1-4 with a 4.53 ERA and .252 opponents’ average in 11 home starts, compared to 2-5 with a 2.96 ERA and stingy .184 OA in 10 road starts. There’s another however, however: he has a 1.42 ERA and .159 opponents’ average  in his past three home starts, with just 10 hits, four runs (three earned runs), no homers and six walks allowed in 19 innings.

Much like Harang, he’s been tougher in tight spots, limiting opponents to a .200 average (24-for-120) with runners in scoring postion including .191 with two outs.

On first pitches, opponents have hit .373 (16-for-43) with two homers and a .674 slugging percentage against Liriano. With two strikes, they’ve hit just .126 (30-for-239) with 22 walks and 123 strikeouts.

His only start against the Braves was a dominant one in 2010, when he had 11 strikeouts with no walks in eight innings while limiting Atlanta  hitters to five hits and one run for the win. Of course, most current Braves hitters weren’t even on the team in 2010.

Against Liriano, B.J. Upton is 5-for-17 and Emilio Bonifacio is 2-for-5.

• Since the eight-game winless road trip, the Braves are 7-4 with a 3.30 ERA, and have batted .260 with 44 runs and 14 homers in those 11 games. Twelve of the 14 homers came in four multi-homer games, including consecutive two-homer games in the past two wins against Oakland and Pittsburgh.

The Braves have won four in a row against the Pirates, hitting .300 with eight homers and a 1.46 ERA in those games including a three-game sweep in Atlanta last June. The Braves have 42 hits in those four games, including 15 hits in Monday’s 7-3 win.

  • The Pirates have lost six in a row and gone 2-8 with a 4.72 ERA in their past 10 games. They are 5-9 since their best player, Andrew McCutchen, went on the 15-day DL with a rib fracture. The All-Star center fielder is eligible to return from the DL today and as of Monday it sounded like he would be activated for tonight’s game.

• Justin Upton is 11-for-30 (.367) with two doubles, three homers, nine RBIs and a .472 OBP during a nine-game hitting streak, including two hits in Monday’s win.

Let’s close with a great duet by M. Ward and Lucinda Williams covering an old Don Gibson song. You can hear it by clicking here.

 “OH LONESOME ME” by M. Ward (featuring Lucinda Williams)

Everybody’s going out and having fun

Luuuuu!

Luuuuu!

I’m just a fool for staying home and having none
I can’t get over how she set me free
Oh, lonesome me

A bad mistake I’m making by just hanging around
I know that I should have some fun and paint the town
A love-sick fool, it’s blinding, just can’t see
Oh, lonesome me

Well, I’ll bet she’s not like me, she’s out and fancy free
Flirtin’ with the boys with all her charms
Oh, but I still love her so and brother don’t you know
Well, I’d welcome her right back here in my arms

There must be some way I can lose these lonesome blues
Forget about the past and find somebody new
I’ve thought of everything from A to Z
Oh, lonesome me

Well, I’ll bet she’s not like me, she’s out and fancy free
Flirtin’ with the boys with all her charms
Oh, but I still love her so and brother, don’t you know
Well, I’d welcome her right back here in my arms

There must be some way I can lose these lonesome blues
Forget about the past and find somebody new
I’ve thought of everything from A to Z
Oh, lonesome me. Oh, lonesome me. Oh, lonesome me.

 

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