published Monday, August 29th, 2011

Heyward struggles in year 2

ATLANTA -- When the Atlanta Braves posted the lineup Friday for their game against the New York Mets, Jason Heyward's name was missing.

In his place, a career minor leaguer most fans had never heard of a month ago.

And guess what? It's not even a surprise anymore when Heyward remains in the Braves dugout while Jose Constanza -- all 5-foot-9, 150 pounds of him -- runs out to right field.

Heyward, who as a rookie was called a potentially game-changing figure by no less an authority than Hank Aaron, looks completely lost in Year 2. He was plagued for months by a nagging shoulder injury that cropped up in spring training. He's still struggling to regain the form that made him such a sensation last season.

"Yeah, it's frustrating," Heyward said. "I want to do well. I want to be on the field as much as possible. I want to be one of the guys you look to in big situations."

He's not that guy right now. With his average stuck in the low .200s, it's no longer possible for the wild card-leading Braves to keep running Heyward out there day after day after day.

The guy who was supposed to get penciled in for the next 20 years is -- gasp! -- a part-timer.

"We've just got to get the guy some confidence," teammate Chipper Jones said. "Unfortunately, it's getting late in the year now and we've got to play the hot hand and Constanza has been a huge boost for us. Quite frankly, he's going to play because he's the hot guy."

So Heyward gets to sit a lot, forced to do much of his work in the cage or during batting practice while others are playing.

It wasn't that long ago he hit a three-run homer on his first swing in the big leagues, prompting an excited Aaron to proclaim the J-Hey Kid was just the sort of player who could lure more African-Americans back to the national pastime.

Heyward was so popular that he was voted to start the All-Star game (though he couldn't play because of a thumb injury). He was a major factor in the Braves returning to the playoffs for the first time in five years, hitting .277 with 18 homers, 72 RBIs and an on-base percentage of nearly .400. He wound up second to Buster Posey in the NL rookie of the year voting.

He was the hometown kid who made good, and if that sounds familiar around these parts, it should.

Jeff Francoeur broke into the big leagues with similar fanfare back in 2005, claiming a spot on the cover of Sports Illustrated before he was barely old enough to shave. Unfortunately for the Braves, he never quite lived up to that early hype and was dealt away just four years later. Still only 27, he's already on his fourth big league team, a solid player but definitely not the star everyone expected.

"Expectations are tough at times," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "Maybe that's some of the stuff those guys had to deal with. But I'm not there yet with Jason. Everybody's different."

While Heyward insists that he's merely trying to sort out the mechanics that served him so well as a rookie, the things he got away from because of his ailing shoulder. Jones believes the problem runs deeper. To his well-trained eye, Heyward will never become the player he can be until he develops a more versatile swing.

"He's got one swing," Jones said, describing a long, sweeping stroke that relies largely on the arms rather than the hands, a style that opposing pitchers have clearly figured out how to deal with this season. "Show me a .300 hitter, and I will show you a guy who's gonna take five different swings."

Pull up a chair. Professor Jones is ready to give a hitting lesson.

"How many times have you seen Jason get fooled on an off-speed pitch and one-hand it into center field?" Jones asked, not even waiting for the answer. "I haven't either. ... Until he learns to get some rhythm and drop it into the slot like he would a golf club, drop it into the slot at contact point and use his hands to work for him, he's going to struggle."

Heyward looks a bit puzzled when told of Jones' assessment. After all, the 22-year-old didn't get so far, so quickly with a bunch of poor techniques.

"This is basically about me relearning what I already know about hitting and just physically putting it into play," he said. "I've always been a line-drive hitter, always been a contact person, someone who could get on base with a short swing, a hand-sy swing. It's never been a long swing. Playing the first two months with my shoulder hurting, I got away from using my hands to get to the ball."

There may be some disagreement over what Heyward needs to work on, but everyone praises him for doing a good job of keeping his head up, playing hard whenever called upon and making sure he does nothing to upset the chemistry of a team that appears headed back to the playoffs.

"I've struggled before at this game. Everyone has," Heyward said. "No matter how well you handle it, whether it's success or failure, you're always going to be humbled at some point by this game."

The Braves certainly haven't given up on Heyward. Not by a long shot.

"Sometimes you go through this kind of stuff and it makes you better, makes you stronger when you come out of it," Gonzalez said. "In the long run, he's going to be our guy. We're going to be better as an organization and as a team when Jason Heyward comes out of it and he's out there playing in right field every day and doing what he's supposed to do."

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