While not a prototypical leadoff man, Jason Heyward has looked comfortable batting there in a Braves lineup that’s performed at its highest level since the big man moved into that spot just over a week ago.
The Braves hit .303 and scored 62 runs during a nine-game winning streak before Sunday, including six consecutive double-digit hit totals with Heyward as the leadoff hitter before he was out of the lineup for a rest day Saturday (he ended up coming off the bench and getting two at-bats late in the 12-inning win).
“I’m fine doing it,” Heyward said before Sunday night’s series finale against the Phillies, when he hit leadoff for the eighth time in nine games. “I’ve still got the same guy (Justin Upton) hitting behind me, still hitting with the same lineup, and having those guys at the bottom on base when I’m coming up is also nice to have.”
Including one other game atop the batting order May 31, Heyward hit .313 (10-for-32) with a .421 on-base percentage in eight games at leadoff before Sunday, with two homers, 11 runs and eight RBIs. He was moved to the spot July 27, the second day of the Braves’ winning streak.
It’s the first time the Braves have had so many hitters healthy and hot at once, and Heyward said having Chris Johnson, Dan Uggla and Andrelton Simmons down in the order and getting on base has made for an easier transition for him at leadoff.
“Because then they’ve got to pitch to me somewhat,” he said. “They can be careful, but if they do walk me in that situation and you put me on, then you’ve got Justin up with two guys on.”
Upton was moved to the second spot when Heyward was bumped up to leadoff, and Freddie Freeman has been the regular No. 3 hitter in that alignment, with Evan Gattis or Brian McCann batting cleanup.
“Fredi was experimenting, trying to get something that clicks and something that works,” Braves general manager Frank Wren said. “Whether it ignites guys or makes them feel comfortable, however you want to describe it, he was looking for that right combination, and this one has seemed to fit for everybody.”
The Braves weren’t getting much from a variety of hitters in the leadoff spot with the exception of outfielder Jordan Schafer, who thrived in the role (.307 average, .409 OBP in 75 at-bats). He could be back from the 15-day disabled list within a week, but Schafer won’t be in the lineup on a regular basis unless a starter gets hurt.
Fortunately for the Braves, an unlikely choice – Heyward is 6 feet 4, 240 pounds — has proven an effective option. Wren believes there’s something to be said for the uniqueness of having Heyward in that role.
“From my perspective, I think it gives the (opposing) pitcher a pause when he looks at what he’s got to start off the game with,” Wren said.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, Heyward has seen more fastballs batting leadoff — 65 percent compared to 57 percent before July 27.
“I guess I’ve noticed some. But I still feel like they pitch me pretty tough,” Heyward said. “They don’t want to put me on, but it’s like they’re trying to be careful at the same time. I still wouldn’t say I’m getting a whole lot in the zone.”
The Braves’ 90 runs since the All-Star break were 12 more than the next-highest total in the majors before Sunday, and for the season they had taken over the National League lead in on-base-plus-slugging percentage at .742.
“This is kind of what we were looking for out of ourselves early in the year,” Heyward said. “We still feel like we can improve.”
Schafer, Laird updates: In his second injury-rehab game, Schafer went 0-for-3 with a walk and an RBI ground out Sunday in Triple-A Gwinnett’s 4-1 win at Durham. He was 1-for-4 with a double and an RBI Saturday in his first game since going on the disabled list July 4 with a stress fracture near his right ankle.
Asked if he might have three or four rehab games, Gonzalez said, “Maybe a little bit more. I’m thinking we’ll have a little better read by the time we get home.”
The Braves start a three-game series Monday at Washington and have a day offThursday before a nine-game homestand.
Catcher Gerald Laird is set to play a couple of injury-rehab games later in the week. He’s recovering from a procedure to remove a kidney stone and can come off the DL Friday.