Jason Heyward is moving closer to a return. Out since a Jon Niese fastball broke his jaw on Aug. 21, the 24-year-old rightfielder had a restrictive band and braces removed from his mouth on Monday, and is scheduled to rejoin the team to take batting practice on Friday. The Braves could certainly use his return, though it may not come until the postseason.
Not including their extra-innings win over the Mets after Heyward departed, Atlanta is just 10-8 since he went down, and has outscored opponents by only one run, 60-59. Their pitching and defense have done their part, yielding just 3.28 runs per game, but the offense has been scarcely better, scoring 3.33 runs per game in that span while hitting a collectively abysmal .233/.297/.359.
To fill the void in the outfield, manager Fredi Gonzalez has mainly relied upon Jordan Schafer and Evan Gattis, with Joey Terdoslavich and Elliot Johnson also making appearances, and Justin Upton switching from leftfield to rightfield depending upon the identity of the fill-in. Alas, Gattis (.290/.333/.668 with three homers in 33 PA) has been the only one of those players to outdo the team's 656 OPS in that span, with Schafer (.200/.241/.255 in 60 PA) and Upton (.170/.279/.264 in 60 PA) particularly frosty.
The sad thing about Heyward's injury was that it came just as he had finally settled into a groove. Having struggled along at a .146/.290/.243 clip through the end of May -- a span interrupted by his three-week absence due to an appendectomy -- and finished the first half at .227/.324/.371 with seven homers, he had hit .317/.405/.554 with six homers in 116 plate appearances (admittedly, not a large sample size) in the second half. He had gotten particularly hot since moving into the leadoff spot on July 27, hitting .341/.414/.580 in 99 plate appearances over 22 games. By contrast, Schafer and B.J. Upton have combined to hit just .178/.218/.219 from the leadoff spot since then, drawing only two unintentional walks in 80 plate appearances.
The Braves went 17-5 in the games where Heyward led off, and held a 15-game lead in the NL East when his injury hit. That lead is down to 12 games now thanks to the Nationals' 13-5 run during his absence. While Atlanta's odds of winning the division hit 100 percent ("greater than 99.949 percent") on Aug. 1 and haven't budged according to the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report, its lead over the Dodgers for the league's best record and thus home-field advantage through the National League Championship Series is down to one game and the two are tied in the loss column entering play on Wednesday.
According to general manager Frank Wren, the two plates Heyward had surgically inserted to stabilize his jaw will remain in there, and he will wear a mouth guard during baseball activities. He was cleared to begin playing catch and hitting off a tee back on Sept. 3. Moving on to batting practice is the next step, and after that, with the minor league season done and thus no opportunity for a rehab stint, the Braves would like to send him to the Florida instructional league to face live pitching under game conditions. Atlanta hopes that can happen in time for him to return to the majors over the final week of the season, which ends on Sunday, Sept. 29. With the Division Series not beginning until the following Thursday, Oct. 3, the team does have a few extra days to get him additional at-bats under simulated conditions if necessary. Whenever he's actually back, the Braves will more closely resemble the team that came into Wednesday owning the majors' best record and fourth-best run differential.