T.K. Greer: It may not be fair, but Braves’ playoff success rides with Heyward
by T.K. Greer
Special to The Star
Sep 30, 2013 | 2967 views |  0 comments | 49 49 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward wears a batting helmet with a protective shield before the Braves host the San Diego Padres at Turner Field on Friday. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Getz)
Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward wears a batting helmet with a protective shield before the Braves host the San Diego Padres at Turner Field on Friday. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Jason Getz)
Have you ever seen $122 million dollars?

Yes, that’s a bit of an absurd question for almost all of us alive today. But believe it or not, if you’re an Atlanta Braves fan, you’ve seen it. And it doesn’t look as appealing as it should.

No, it’s not fair to pin all of the struggles of Atlanta’s offense on Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton. They aren’t the sole reason the Braves posted just 60 runs in 20 games and batted .203 before this weekend’s regular season series finale against Philadelphia. But that duo is being paid $122 million — $37 million for Uggla through 2015 and $85 million for Upton through 2017 — and the Braves are not getting a valuable return on that investment. Not even close.

They have combined to hit .182 with 318 strikeouts in 834 at bats. They have 31 home runs and 81 RBIs combined. In short, they have been humbled to the nth degree this year in the most humbling of sports — baseball.

Because of their struggles, Atlanta has had to turn more than it expected to Jordan Schaefer, Evan Gattis, Elliot Johnson and Paul Janish. Gattis’ power output aside, that’s hardly a murders row. And if you’re going to hit .182, might as well play Johnson or Janish at second base and upgrade the defense significantly, right?

All of this means more pressure to produce offensively has fallen to Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, Brian McCann, Andrelton Simmons and Jason Heyward.

Justin Upton has had a streaky but solid year. Freeman should be a top-three MVP candidate. McCann has been streaky, but he’s hit his 20-plus home runs and continues to be a consistent threat. Simmons is still maturing as a hitter and has shown flashes of his potential, which is enormous.

But this team goes as Heyward goes, and that’s why any success Atlanta has this postseason will likely rest on his well-equipped shoulders.

Sure, securing the best record in the National League this weekend would be a nice leg up. It would mean missing Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the first round Division Series and facing the Pittsburgh-Cincinnati wild-card winner instead. It also means the Cardinals and Dodgers could beat up on each other in the other Division Series.

But since Heyward moved into the leadoff spot in August, he has hit .343 with nine doubles, six homers and a .408 OBP. He immediately puts pressure on the opposition. He can steal a base, go from first to third on a single and even score from first on a double. And when he steps into the batter’s box for the game’s first pitch, it gives Atlanta’s lineup a whole new aura.

“When a 6-foot-5, 240-pound man steps up there to lead off, it says, ‘OK, the fight’s starting on the first pitch,’” Atlanta hitting coach Greg Walker recently told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Atlanta is 64-30 when Heyward starts and 30-35 when he doesn’t. The Braves’ offense struggled mightily when he was out early in the year with the appendectomy and again in August-September when he missed time with the broken jaw.

Since returning from the disabled list last weekend, Heyward has started several games this week in centerfield — where B.J. Upton was expected to be — instead of his usual right field spot.

That could be a precursor for things to come this postseason. Upton’s lack of production almost demands it. Tie his offensive struggles with Uggla and there’s no doubt about it: Heyward is going to have to be a force offensively this October. Otherwise, Braves fans will once again be saying, "Wait 'til next year."
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