• Exclusives

    Prado, Heyward Leading Braves’ Offensive Revival

    With the Braves’ pitching falling far short of expectations this season, it’s been up to the offense to pick up the considerable slack. Maintaining a 41-36 record despite one of the worst team ERAs in the National League, Atlanta’s hitting is biggest reason they’re still afloat—quite the change in dynamics from last year.

    This upswing has been a pleasant surprise for Braves fans, and there’s a fairly distinct correlation between this change from 2011 to 2012, and that falls on the improvements from Martin Prado and Jason Heyward.

    The Braves’ finished 22nd in runs in 2011 as Prado and Heyward—two of the team’s most important bats—were mired in prolonged slumps. With the reemergence of the two, all of the sudden Atlanta’s offense is dangerous once again.

    Heyward, who had come off a stellar rookie campaign, fell into the dreaded sophomore slump in ’11, hitting .227 and just 14 home runs. Prado, after moving from second base to left field, hit just .260 last year. To say he’s rebounded from that would be an understatement, as he’s on pace for the most productive season of his career.

    Prado, 28, seems to have finally adjusted to his change to the outfield after Dan Uggla’s arrival, and he’s been the Braves’ best hitter this season. His .316 batting average is among the best in the National League; his .822 OPS is high than any other year since his MLB debut in 2006.

    Prado believes that his inability to use the whole field and lack of confidence played a role in his struggles, issues that appears to have disappeared.

    “One of the things that got me [to the major leagues], I feel gifted to handle the ball the other way,” Prado said. “I guess last year, I forgot and I didn’t have that confidence to hit the ball the other way. I’m trying to get back at it and forget about pulling the ball too much. I’m concentrating more on going up the middle and right field.”

    Heyward got off to a rough start this year, but he’s been on fire of late. This includes a stretch in which he hit six extra base hits in five games. Injuries have been an issue for the 22-year-old, but now that he appears healthy, Heyward is playing up to his potential.

    “Well, being healthy, you can make adjustments. When you’re not healthy, with a shoulder problem or what have you, you’re not able to make this adjustments,” Heyward said recently. “If you can’t make adjustments, somebody is able to get you out the same way more than one time in a row. When you’re hurt, you can tell yourself that you want to make that adjustment, but you might not be able to.”

    Atlanta has now cracked the top 10 in the Majors in runs scored, currently sitting pretty at No. 9 overall with 342. The Braves’ .260 average is good for 11th, which isn’t spectacular, but up from last year’s unimpressive .243 number.

    As the All Star break nears, the Braves find themselves very much in the mix for both a wild card spot and the NL East crown. While it will take an improvement in the pitching department before we can consider this team a true contender, it’s important that the Braves have been able to receive the hitting they have from

    Because as we learned the hard way last fall, every game counts—whether it be in April, June or October.

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    Andrew Hirsh is a freelance sportswriter. Follow him on Twitter: @andrewhirsh