Braves’ Heyward surging at right time

September 18, 2012 

Two years ago, Jason Heyward was supposed to become the next Albert Pujols. He was a perfect athlete with a sweet swing and off-the-chart tools. Even at 20 years old, fans took one look at Heyward and knew he was going to be a star.

But the plan got derailed last season. Heyward followed up his solid rookie season with a frustrating year in 2011. He was hurt, and he never seemed healthy. His stats suffered, and Heyward was so bad a hitting coach got fired because he couldn’t fix what ailed the left-handed hitter.

When the Braves brought in the new hitting coach, Coffee County’s Greg Walker, it was obvious his assignment would be to fix Heyward. The kid looked different from his first year to his second. When Heyward hit the ball in 2010, you just prayed no one was going to get hurt. When he hit the ball last season, you wondered at times if he would break glass.

It created so much unrest among fans that some wondered if Heyward was becoming the next Brad Komminsk instead of the next Dale Murphy or Chipper Jones. Komminsk was a top prospect for the Braves 30 years ago who showed great promise but flopped. He had some of the same attributes as Heyward, the same potential. But Komminsk didn’t make it.

Spring training became school for Heyward, as Walker helped him learn how to hit again. They worked on back fields at Disney and had hitting drills and workouts the previous coach never thought to do.

It was hard to tell in March if the work had paid off. Heyward hit .227 in the Grapefruit League, but since he was working on his swing and his mechanics there wasn’t any panic.

In April, there was some progress. Heyward was OK, just OK. He hit .273 with two home runs and nine RBI. But when the calendar flipped to May, Heyward made everyone worry again. He hit only .200 in 111 plate appearances in May, and his overall average dipped to .233.

Fans always worry about young players more than they need to, but it’s usually because they give you reason to be concerned. After what Heyward did a season ago, it was only natural to wonder if he was going down that same lonely road when he struggled in baseball’s second month.

But when the calendar turned again, Heyward turned things around. Since June 1, Heyward has hit .292 with 21 home runs and 51 RBI.

For an Atlanta lineup in dire need of a slugger, Heyward stood straight up and volunteered. He leads the team in home runs (27) and is second in runs batted in with 74 behind his best friend Freddie Freeman.

This is what made fans so frustrated. Everyone knew Heyward could do this. He did too much in his first year to just turn around the next season and collapse.

The injuries had to be a problem last year. When a player’s production takes the dive Heyward’s did, you know there’s got to be something causing the trouble. Last year, Heyward played in only 128 games. This season, he has played in all but three games the Braves have played.

The timing on this resurgence couldn’t be better. Remember what’s getting ready to happen in a few weeks. Chipper Jones is walking out of that clubhouse when the season is over, and he won’t be back as a player. Someone is going to have to step up and become the star player for the next generation of the Braves.

Heyward is the best candidate. Sure, Brian McCann might be it. But his contract is up after next season, and there’s no guaranteeing McCann’s long-term future right now. It’s Heyward who could really line up as Atlanta’s next superstar.

That’s what we all knew, or at least believed, Heyward could be. We knew it when he hit that home run in his first big league at-bat two years ago. But it was logical after his 2011 struggles to wonder if the Braves had lost him.

Heyward is back, and now we all know the torch is being passed. In 1995, Jones took over for Terry Pendleton at third base. It started a new era of Braves baseball, but it’s a chapter that is almost ready to be closed. It’s Heyward’s turn now, and he’s showing us he might still live up to those lofty expectations.

Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill on Twitter@yahoo.com.

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