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Braves’ Heyward struggles through brutal season

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.

“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.”

It wasn’t that long ago Heyward 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 was second in the N.L. rookie of the year voting.

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. He said Heyward won’t 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.”

Heyward looks a bit puzzled when told of Jones’ assessment.

“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.”

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