On July 26, shortstop Andrelton Simmons batted leadoff for the Atlanta Braves and went hitless in four at-bats. That ended a 15-game span in which Simmons hit just .182 and posted an on-base percentage of .236. The Braves, atop the National League East but foundering at the top of the order, needed a change.
The next day, Manager Fredi Gonzalez juggled his lineup. Simmons was done as a leadoff hitter. First baseman Freddie Freeman moved more permanently into the third spot. Justin Upton bumped up from third to second. That left only one person to lead off: right fielder Jason Heyward.
“When we moved him there, it wasn’t just because of him going to leadoff,” Gonzalez said. “It was a combination of other different things we wanted to do with the lineup. It wasn’t just Jason going to the leadoff spot. We wanted Freeman to hit in the first inning. We wanted Justin to get his bat going a little bit, and I didn’t want to move him down to the sixth or seventh spot, so we moved him to number two. We wanted to take Simmons — take some pressure off of him in that top of the order. So all those things combined, we came up with Jason leading off.”
For the better part of a month, it worked beautifully. At 6 feet 5 and 240 pounds, Heyward doesn’t look like a leadoff hitter. But in 22 games there, he hit .341 with an on-base percentage of .414 and a slugging percentage of .580.
But on Aug. 21, less than a month after Gonzalez’s wacky experiment began, Heyward was hit in the face by a fastball from the Mets’ Jon Niese and suffered a broken jaw. The good news for the Braves: He was activated from the disabled list Friday, just in time to get some game experience before the playoffs begin.
“I have to be patient,” Heyward said during the Braves’ recent series in Washington. “I know it’s going to take time. I can’t just do it in one day, unfortunately.”
This all gives the Braves a hope that few other playoff teams will have when the regular season wraps up Sept. 29: They’ll make a major addition to their lineup as they enter the postseason. Combined, all other Atlanta leadoff men have hit .227 this season.
“We’re as good as the guy that sets the table a little bit,” Gonzalez said.
Heyward faced live batting practice Wednesday in Washington. There was no doubt where he would hit upon his return.
“He’s the leadoff,” Gonzalez said. “I think we did okay with him there.”