The worst case scenario of any batter is that they will be standing at the plate when a fastball gets away from the pitcher and hits them square in the head or face. This is, of course, the worst case scenario for any pitcher as well. Nobody can adequately prepare to be hit in this way. The Braves, Mets and their respective fans watched this scenario play out Wednesday when Atlanta outfielder Jason Heyward stepped into the box and took a Jonathan Niese fastball off of the right side of his face. Unfortunately, the ear flap on his helmet did little to protect the slugger and the players and viewers watched in horror as the big man fell to the ground. Though Heyward never lost consciousness, that he was immediately taken out of the game and then sent to a NYC-area hospital spoke to the severity of the injury. The Braves later announced that he had fractured the right side of his jaw in 2 places, would be sent back to Atlanta to have surgery and would miss 4-6 weeks.
The severity of the loss cannot be overstated. Heyward had been the most consistent outfielder on both sides of the ball for months and as lead-off man had given the Braves the jolt that propelled them to their 15-game lead in the NL East. In 64 games since June 2nd (the greater part of the first 2 months of the season lost to an emergency appendectomy), Heyward hit .301 with 27 extra-base hits, 11 homers, 43 runs and 29 RBIs. Heyward has 64 defensive runs saved in right field since 2010. No other outfielder has 40 over that span.
Take a second to appreciate just how many Braves have spent time on or currently are on the the disabled list this season: Brandon Beachy, Tim Hudson, Reed Johnson, Jordan Schafer, Jason Heyward, B.J. Upton, Cristian Martinez, Jonny Venters, Ramiro Pena, Blake DeWitt, Eric O’Flaherty, Freddie Freeman, Evan Gattis, Brian McCann, Gerald Laird, Luis Ayala, Jordan Walden, Luis Avilan, Paul Maholm, Tyler Pastornicky and Dan Uggla. Of those 22 players, 5 of them are currently on the DL with season-ending injuries. The Braves are hopeful that Jason Heyward’s 4-6 weeks missed for a fractured jaw will have him healthy and returning in time for the postseason.
To help shore up what had become a glaring hole in the middle of the infield, the Braves acquired veteran infielder Elliot Johnson off release waivers from the Kansas City Royals this week. Elliot Johnson may be best remembered for his time in Tampa Bay where he played in 2011 and 2012. Johnson was the player to be named later in the deal that sent James Shields and Wade Davis to the Royals for Wil Myers and 3 prospects. Johnson was hitting .179/.218/.241 in 173 plate appearances with the Royals. His final year in Tampa he hit a respectable .242/.304/.350. Johnson will add to Janish, Gosselin and Simmons in the middle infield until Dan Uggla returns from eye surgery. Uggla has already taken BP since surgery and appears to be on pace to return upon eligibility.
Lost in the injury to Heyward was the fact that Craig Kimbrel did something only one other Atlanta Brave ever has–he recorded his 40th save in Wednesday’s win. After a 10th inning 3-run blast by Chris Johnson, Kimbrel was called in to record the save and did what he has now down 40 or more times in 3-consecutive seasons. He got the save. Kimbrel joins only John Smoltz as Atlanta closers with 3 seasons with 40 or more saves, Kimbrel’s happen to be consecutive seasons. In addition, Kimbrel converted his 30th straight save on the season. He’s allowed 1 earned run on 20 hits in 38 innings pitched (an ERA of 0.24) with a ridiculous 57 strikeouts over that period of time. He is a large part of the reason the Braves remain the best bullpen in baseball despite major injuries that would have crippled any other team.
BRAVES TAKE FLIGHT WITHOUT HEYWARD TO ST. LOUIS…
The last place the Braves want to be right now is on the road to St. Louis without their gold glove outfielder Heyward. However, the division is safe and the Braves have options in the outfield until Heyward can return. The likely choice is for the Braves to call up Todd Cunningham from Triple-A Gwinnett, continue to platoon Schafer and B.J. Upton in center field and then use Evan Gattis and Joey Terdoslavich is left as needed with Justin Upton patrolling either left or right. From the lead off spot, this is more of an issue, given that B.J. Upton has shown no consistency out of that spot and Andrelton Simmons is by no means a prototypical lead off man. However, the Braves can make do with the pieces they have and, unlike most of the league, those pieces together have been pretty dominant all season.
The Braves will send returning lefty Paul Maholm to the mound tonight for his first start since injuring his wrist. Bringing Maholm back now and utilizing a 6-man rotation gives Fredi Gonzalez the opportunity to observe each of the 6 starters (Beachy, Maholm, Wood, Minor, Teheran and Medlen) to see which 4 will be the most effective when the postseason comes around. The 2 odd men out will join the bullpen and can be used in the event of injury. Maholm has veteran experience, something that obviously none of the other starters really do and that is always important in the playoffs. Until Fredi makes a decision otherwise, we can expect to go forward with all 6.
The 4-game series in St. Louis will get underway tonight with Maholm (9-9, 4.41) vs. Kelly (4-3, 3.01). Friday night’s game will feature Medlen (10-11, 3.71) vs. Wainwright (14-7, 2.66). Saturday’s game will pit battling rookies Teheran (10-6, 2.96) vs. Miller (11-8, 2.98). And Sunday’s season finale will feature Beachy (2-1, 4.50) vs. Lynn (13-7, 3.97). The first 3 games of the series will be on MLB Network and the finale on TBS.
Tara Rowe is an independent historian and beat writer for BravesWire.com. Follow Tara on Twitter @framethepitch.