September 2009

Hope remains

Maybe it was not realistic to believe that the Braves were going to be able conclude the season with a 13-game winning streak.  But the next few days will tell us whether running the table in this fashion was the only way they were going to be able to completely dig themselves out of the hole that was dug before they became hotter than Jessica Simpson. 

Three games back with just five games to play certainly is not an enviable position.  But while realistically looking at how they might catch the Rockies in the Wild Card standings, Braves general manager Frank Wren said he accounted for his team to lose once this week with the hope that the Rockies split their final three games.

“I think realistically if you talked to everyone in this building, they probably thought we would lose one game this week,” Wren said.  “We didn’t know when it was going to be and we knew that we probably needed the Rockies to lose three times…We could have been hopeful of winning them all, but that probably wasn’t as realistic.”   <p>

Obviously the Braves still do a chance to pull off what would truly be deemed a miraculous run.  But they’ll have to start coming up with the clutch hits that haven’t been present as they’ve gone 1-for-15 w/ RISP during the first two games against the Marlins and also get some assistance from this Dodgers club that has spent the past few days letting the Padres and Pirates feel better about themselves.

While losing four of their past five games against the Pirates and Padres, the Dodgers haven’t provided any reason to feel confident about what they might do when the Rockies arrive in Los Angeles this weekend with the hope of securing the Wild Card entry. 

But the Dodgers have won 12 of 15 against the Rockies this year and if they can manage to add two or three wins to that win total this weekend, then the Braves might still find themselves playing next week. 

 

Did Barmes make the catch?

At the conclusion of Monday night’s win over the Marlins at Turner Field, the big video board in center field ran a clip that concluded with Chipper Jones saying, “It’s time to believe.”
 
There’s no doubt that it’s time to believe that the Braves could erase the two-game deficit they currently possess against the Rockies and find their way into postseason.  

But I’m not sure that Rockies second baseman Clint Barmes truly believes that he made that miraculous catch that ended Sunday’s 4-3 win over the Cardinals. 

With runners at the corners and one out, Barmes raced into shallow right field and made what appeared to be a tremendous over-the-shoulder catch while tumbling and turning into the Coors Field grass.  He then quickly turned and threw to first base to complete a game-ending double play.

 “By the time I looked back up, the ball was on top of me,” Barmes told MLB.com.  “That was where it kind of got all off-balance, with the roll…As I was going down, it hit my glove then went across my body or something and … I don’t even know, but I came up with it in my bare hand.”

But did he come up with the ball in his hand before it hit the ground? 

Before screaming about the need for Major League Baseball to broaden its instant replay system, I’ve got to tell you that I’ve looked at this video clip countless times this morning and I still haven’t seen the ball hit the ground.

But in the fan photo section that The Denver Post runs, Craig Welling has posted at least one shot that appears to show the ball on the ground.  Click here to see all of the pictures that Welling has taken of this moment and posted on his photoblog.

Here is the most revealing shot he took. This is the only view that I’ve found that shows that the ball seemingly did hit the grass.

Barmes catch.jpg   

Former MLB.com colleague Troy Renck addressed this question for The Denver Post and received an interesting answer from the always light-hearted and media-friendly Ryan Spilborghs, who was racing in from right field as Barmes performed his acrobatics.
 
“Only me and Barmes know the truth,” Spilborghs told Renck. “It’s the same as (Matt) Holliday touching home plate. It’s better that it’s (mysterious).”

When the Rockies won their one-game playoff against the Padres in 2007, they did so with Matt Holliday seemingly sliding across the plate with the winning run.  But replays never confirmed that he actually touched the plate.  

If the Rockies hold off the Braves and gain the National League Wild Card entry, this Barmes play will be one that’s celebrated in Denver and heavily debated in Atlanta.

But just like the Braves can’t lament the fact that they lost a four-run, seventh-inning lead during their July 12 loss at Coors Field, they can’t lose focus now by worrying about whether or not Barmes truly made this catch.

With the Marlins sending Josh Johnson to the mound to oppose Tim Hudson tonight, the Braves are preparing to face what appears to be the greatest challenge that they’ll encounter over the course of the final six games.

Johnson went 3-1 with a 2.18 ERA in his first eight career appearances against the Braves.  But the big right-hander has gone 1-1 with a 4.34 ERA in his past three outings against them.

One thing going for the Braves is the fact that Johnson may still be feeling the effects of the flu symptoms that caused him to miss Sunday’s scheduled start.  He’s completed just five innings in three of his four starts this month and has thrown more than 92 pitches in just two of his past seven outings. 

The Braves also can only hope that Jason Marquis continues his recent struggles when he takes the mound for the Rockies in their series opener against the Brewers tonight.  

The Rockies have won just one of Marquis’ past six starts and during this span, the former Braves hurler has gone 1-4 with a 6.49 ERA.  He has been charged with five earned runs in four of this six outings.

Small crowd:
  Given the excitement the Braves have created while winning 15 of their past 17 games, it was disappointing to see the sparse, yet very enthusiastic crowd that attended Monday night’s game. 

But this just doesn’t seem to be the time to once again bash the fans of Atlanta.  Obviously this city was hit hard last week by floods and there are many individuals who are still attempting to recover. 

The Braves have donated $25,000 to local aid organizations and before each remaining game this week they will collect flood relief donations in the Monument Grove area.  They are asking fans to contribute monetary donations, gift cards, hygiene items, school supplies, non-perishable food items and baby items.

In exchange for monetary donations or books to help assist Clarksdale Elementary to rebuild its library that was destroyed last week, Hudson will sign autographs at Turner Field  from 5:45-6:45 p.m. ET on Friday.  

What will this final week bring?

Usually when I answer the phone, I hear “what’s up” or “hey”.   This morning the common greeting has been, “so are they going to do it?”  

One witty friend said, “The Braves are trying to out-Rockie the Rockies.”  

Obviously he was referencing the 2007 season, when the Rockies won 13 of the final 14 regular season games and forced a one-game playoff with the Padres to determine who would serve as the National League’s Wild Card representative.  

Well if the Braves were to remain perfect throughout this final seven-game homestand, which begins tonight against the Marlins, they too will have won 13 of the final 14 games on their 162-game schedule.

Or to localize this achievement, they will have completed a 13-game winning streak that will trump the excitement of the identical one posted by Glenn Hubbard, Dale Murphy and their Braves teammates at the start of the 1982 season.   

Joe Torre skippered that bunch to that incredible start and 27 years later, as the Dodgers manager, he finds himself in a position where he could play a very influential role on where the Braves find themselves at the end of another 13-game winning streak.  

Nothing has changed on the Braves front.  They still must enter every remaining game with the do-or-die mindset that they’d feel if they were down one entering the ninth inning.   Even if they were to end the season in perfect fashion, the Rockies could win five of their final six against the Brewers and Dodgers and leave the city of Atlanta wondering “what might have been?”

Things would certainly look a lot better right now had Rockies second baseman Clint Barmes not ventured into shallow right field to make the tremendous catch that started the game-ending double play against the Cardinals yesterday.

As Barmes twisted, turned and tumbled to the ground while making the catch, I wondered if he had looked the same when he broke his collarbone while carrying that deer meat that Todd Helton had given him during the 2005 season.  

But more importantly, the immediate thought was how much different would things be if that ball had fallen and the Cardinals had held on to give the Braves a chance to come home facing just a 1 -game deficit in the Wild Card standings.

With a 2 1/2-game advantage, the Rockies will close their season with three-game sets against the Brewers and Dodgers.   

The Braves have an easier road with a three-game set against the Marlins, who have seen their postseason hopes erased, and a four-game set against the Nationals, who have compiled 103 losses and still not found one to be as embarrassing as the one their Washington D.C. football brothers experienced in Detroit yesterday.  

The Brewers have won 11 of their past 17 games, but were swept at home while dropping three straight one-run games to the Rockies in June.   The Dodgers have won 12 of 15 against the Rockies this year, but might not have anything to play for by the time they meet them again this weekend.  

Even if the Pirates were to hold onto this afternoon’s lead and end up taking three of four from the Dodgers, Torre’s bunch will still head to San Diego tomorrow owning at least a 1 -game advantage in the race to gain home field advantage throughout the postseason.   

Personally, I think it’s a stretch to think the Dodgers would be motivated this weekend by the opportunity to erase the Rockies and consequently ensure that they won’t have to open the postseason against the Phillies or Cardinals.  
I
n fact, there’s definite reason to believe that given the choice the Dodgers would much rather face either of those two division winners right now instead of the red-hot Braves, who are currently enjoying some of that mojo that helped the Rockies sweep through the Division Series and NL Championship Series in 2007.
 
Having won 15 of their past 18 games, the Braves have given us a chance to enjoy the tension that makes the regular season’s final week so special.
 
Now they just have to make sure the Marlins don’t suddenly gain that spoiler magic that has allowed them to erase the Mets from the postseason picture during the previous two seasons.  
If they pass the challenge the Marlins will present, the Braves can focus on completing their task against the Nationals, who have been present when the Phillies have celebrated the division titles that they’ve captured during final weekend of the past two seasons.

Whether the Nationals watch a team celebrate for a third consecutive season remains to be seen.  But it certainly wouldn’t bother me if I’m still answering the phone on Sunday morning and immediately hearing, “So are they going to do it?”

Braves look to end horrors at Nationals Park

So you’re saying they’ve got a chance? Yeah, I know Mathew McConaughey also sounded a lot  better when he said something similar in Dazed and Confused.

The Braves have gained four games on the Rockies over the course of the past 10 games played by both teams and if they can gain this same margin over the course of their final 10 games, they’ll enter the postseason with a survivalist’s momentum for the first time since 1993.

While winning their 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005, the Braves often cruised into the the first round of the playoffs.  During the 2000 and ’01 seasons, they didn’t clinch until the season’s final weekend. 

But this year, like in 1991 and ’93,  it looks like there will be a chance for them to actually enter the 162nd game of the season in must-win mode. Currently scheduled to start the season finale against the Nationals at Turner Field, Tim Hudson may have a chance to truly make his mark after spending the majority of this year rehabbing from elbow reconstruction surgery.

Obviously, the Braves are  going to need a little assistance from the Rockies to gain this opportunity.  But when you look at the remaining schedules that both teams will have to navigate, you have to think we’ll at least go into next weekend still feeling like the Braves have a chance.

Of course if the Braves were to continue their struggles at Nationals Park this weekend, they may just want to walk down the street to the Smithsonian and place their season among their other items that are now tagged as “history”. 

The struggles the Braves have experienced in D.C. the past two years are absolutely mind-boggling.  They’ve gone 4-11 at Nationals Park and won just two of their past 12 games there.

Since moving out of RFK, which stood for “The Only NL East Stadium worse than Shea”,  the Nationals have gone 64-91 at home. Take away those 15 games against the Braves and they’ve compiled a .379 winning percentage at their new park.

The Nationals opened Nationals Park on March 30, 2008 with Ryan Zimmerman’s walk-off homer off Peter Moylan.  Over the course of the next two weeks, this would also be the site where Moylan would blow out his elbow and Tom Glavine would incur the hamstring injury that forced him to the disabled list for the first time in his career.

Well this should be enough info to provide you the reminder that Nationals Park has essentially been a house of horrors for the Braves. 

If you’re looking for some encouragement, the three worst batting averages produced by Braves players who have had at least 40 plate appearances in D.C. over the past two years are owned by Kelly Johnson (.217), Jeff Francoeur (.184) and Gregor Blanco (.167). 

Martin Prado, who scored the ninth-inning, game-tying run as a pinch runner during that March 30, 2008 game, has hit .484 (15-for-31) at Nationals Park.  Prado is back in the lineup tonight after missing Wednesday’s game in New York because of a bruised left leg that he suffered courtesy of a batting practice liner off Johnson’s bat. 

While the Braves are spending this weekend in D.C., the Rockies will be hosting the Cardinals for a three-game series.  In other words, by the time Sunday evening concludes, you have to think there’s a good chance the Braves could be even closer than the 3 1/2 games that seperate them and the front-running Rockies in the National League Wild Card chase.

After attempting to separate themselves from the Marlins during the early portion of next week, the Braves will stay at Turner Field to end their season with a four-game series against the Nationals.

The Rockies will stay at home after this weekend’s series to host the Brewers for a three-game set.  They will then travel to Los Angeles for a season-ending, three-game series against a Dodgers club that the Braves can only hope will still be motivated by the opportunity to secure home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

There are still a number of things that have to go right for the Braves.  But it’s still nice to know that we may all be able to enjoy the tension and excitement that tight postseason races bring during the season’s final week.

Right move:  It will be interesting to see the emotions that Bobby Cox is feeling as we end the 2010 season and he finds himself staring at his approaching retirement.  But when the Braves announced Wednesday that next year will be the last of his storied career, Cox seemed to respond with a sense of relief.

Part of his relief stemmed from the fact that he would no longer have to answer our questions about his future.  But at the same time, through his words he admitted that he wasn’t going to ever let himself seriously think about retirement until somebody basically talked him into it.

Cox is going to miss the daily stresses that he’s felt as a manager and we’re all going to dearly miss the opportunity to interact on a daily basis with one of the game’s true legends. 

But this arrangement will certainly benefit his health and likely provide us all many more years to be enriched by the knowlege of a man who has been the most influential figure in the long history of the Braves organization.

Prospect Watch: This week Baseball America has started revealing the top prospects from each of the leagues in the Minors.  Two of their first three selections have been Braves.

Christian Bethancourt, a 17-year-old catcher from Panama, was named the Gulf Coast League’s top prospect.  Bethancourt, who you may remamber from the 2004 Little League World Series, was signed for the Braves for $600,000 last year.  He’s still developing offensive power, but scouts have been impressed with his arm, which has regularly gotten the ball to second base at a rate of 1.8 seconds.

Highly-regarded right-hander Julio Teheran was named the Appalachian League’s top prospect.  Teheran, who signed for $850,000 in 2007, proved he was no longer bothered by the shoulder tendinitis that limited him to 15 innings last year.

During his 14 combined starts with Rookie Level Danville and Class A Rome this year, Teheran worked 96 1/3 innings, registered 84 strikeouts and issued just five walks.  The 18-year-old right-hander possess a fastball that rests between 92-96 mph and a plus changeup.

BA will continue to unveil its top prospects from each league over the
next couple of weeks and obviously we’ll soon see Jason Heyward’s name
atop yet another of their lists.

I’m not with the club this weekend.  But I’ll check in periodically over the next couple of days.

TONIGHT’S LINEUP

McLouth 8
Prado 4
Chipper 5
McCann 2
Escobar 6
Anderson 7
Diaz 9
LaRoche 3
Vazquez 1

  
   

Cox and Wren have formed strong working relationship

Bobby Cox and Frank Wren aren’t unlike any other general manager-manager combos in professional sports.  Just like the key decision makers in any corporation, they are bound to encounter internal conflicts.

During one of the early days of Spring Training this season, Cox seemingly reached his boiling point after exiting a meeting with Wren and his coaches.

Reacting to a tone that he felt was condescending toward his coaches, the long-time Braves manager contemplated immediate retirement.  

After a few hours of contemplation, Cox opted to stick around.

Cox’s respect for Wren has led him to deny that this event occurred.  But those of us that have been around the team throughout this season, can’t deny the fact that the working relationship shared by Cox and Wren was definitely strengthened in the days, weeks and months following this event. 

No later than Monday, Cox will likely confirm that he’s returning to manage at least one more season.  If he truly felt that he couldn’t continue to work with Wren, the 68-year-old skipper would have already provided more indication that he’s currently spending his final days on the bench.

Like Cox’s successor will have big shoes to fill, Wren didn’t exactly encounter an enviable situation when he assumed the role that John Schuerholz had mastered for so many years.

To simply refer to Schuerholz as a great baseball man would be an insult.  His greatness was gained through the great leadership that he continues to provide the Braves organization as its president. 

Still during the 17 years that Cox and Schuerholz shared a manager-GM relationship, they had their differences.  But over time, they developed a working relationship that drew envy from the peers that shared their positions throughout the Majors.        
  
Wren has done an excellent job ushering the Braves away from holding on to tightly to their successful past.  While saying goodbye to the likes of John Smoltz and Tom Glavine, he’s ushered the club toward what he foresees as a bright future.

At the same time, Wren has also shown the willingness to make the adaptations necessary to build the strong working relationship that has given Cox even more reason to stick around a little longer to be part of this future. 

Lowe has provided value

When Derek Lowe looks back on this season, he’s going to remember plenty of disappointment.   What started out as a promising first year in Atlanta quickly fizzled into one that brought greater reason to wonder how much the Braves might regret giving him a four-year, $60 million contract in January. 

Still through all the troubles, which essentially started during the middle portion of June, Lowe has managed to compile a team-high 15 wins this season, a total that has so far been reached by just five other National League hurlers.

Lowe will be the first to admit that it’s not wise to judge a pitcher’s season via a win-loss record.  But with that being said, dating back to the beginning of the 2000 season, he’s recorded just the 14th 15-win season for a Braves pitcher.

If Jair Jurrjens were to notch his 13th win tonight, the Braves will still have a chance to have three 15-game winners (Lowe and Javy Vazquez included) for the first time since 2002 when Kevin Millwood, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux all reached that mark.  

Through his first 13 starts this season, Lowe went 7-3 with a 3.44 ERA and limited opponents to a .240 batting average.  In the 19 starts that have followed, he has gone 8-6 with a 5.47 ERA and allowed opponents to produce a .343 batting average.

As he was speaking after last night’s win over the Mets, Lowe was interrupted by a reporter who had joined the scrum as Lowe was alluding to the fact that the Braves have 12 more games to hope to gain the miracle to join the postseason mix.

Having heard just part of the statement, the reporter  asked, “what were you talking about, (stinking) 12 games ago or something?

Lowe responded with, “I’ve (stunk) in a lot more than 12 games.  Come on.”
 
When Lowe has struggled this year, there’s no doubt that he’s created a couple of ugly results.   But the Braves still have managed to win 20 of the 32 games that he’s started and there have been just six occasions this year when he’s allowed more than three earned runs. 

While Lowe might not have been the ace that some were hoping he’d suddenly become, he still has proven to be a solid member of the rotation and a strong clubhouse figure,  whose unmatched work ethic has provided a good example to many of the younger players. 

With Tommy Hanson, Jurrjens, and likely either Vazquez or Tim Hudson in place next year, the Braves don’t necessarily need Lowe to serve as an ace.   They can only hope that his dedication to conditioning allows him to continue proving to be a productive presence over the next three years.
 
As we enter the final days of this season, I’d still have to say the Braves should feel fortunate that they provided the large contract to Lowe and didn’t incur the financial and health-related burdens that Jake Peavy or A.J. Burnett would have brought. 

Cox’s future:  Braves manager Bobby Cox still hasn’t revealed his plans for the 2010 season.  But  he has at least provided another hint that he’ll be back next year. 

While talking about next year’s schedule, he asked, “when are we going to Minnesota next year?”

Cox will also refer to the Braves as “we”.  But at the same time I think this provided even more reason to believe that he’s not ready to enter into retirement.  

Citi Field:  While the Mets might not like the dimensions at Citi Field, the Braves have found the new park to be quite accommodating.   

During their seven games in New York this season, the Braves have outhomered the Mets 10-3.  In other words, they compiled 21 percent of the total (48) the Mets have hit in their first 76 home games this year. 

With his solo shot off Derek Lowe last night, Daniel Murphy became the all-time home run leader at  Citi Field with a grand total of six.   In 23 at-bats (or 207 fewer than Murhpy), Matt Diaz has cleared this stadium’s walls three times. 
 

Does this portion of the schedule still elicit optimism?

The Braves are about to embark on that portion of their schedule that looked so appealing as recently as Thursday, when there was still seemingly some reason to feel optimistic about their postseason hopes.  

Mathematically the Braves are still alive and while closing the season against the Nationals (seven games), Mets (three games) and Marlins (three games), they certainly have the chance to finish the season in impressive fashion.  

But while losing two of three to the Phillies this past weekend, the Braves fell 5 games behind the Rockies in the National League Wild Card race and seemingly lost the opportunity to fully take advantage of the schedule that awaits them.   

Trying to keep things positive after Sunday afternoon’s loss, Chipper Jones said that teams there are a number of instances throughout the season when clubs lose five and six games in a row.  

Well over the past month, the Rockies have encountered two lengthy skids that didn’t prove devastating to their postseason hopes.    While Colorado lost five straight from Aug. 26-30, the Braves gained two games and moved to within 3 games of the Wild Card’s top spot.

When the Rockies lost four straight from Sept. 12-15, the Braves gained 3 games and still found themselves five games back and further lamenting what they’d squandered during the first week of this month, when they squandered two sixth-inning leads against the Marlins and then got swept at home by the Reds.  

While the postseason aspirations are now truly hanging by a thread, the next couple of weeks should prove to be interesting for the Braves, who within the next week could learn whether Bobby Cox has decided to return to serve as their manager for at least one more season.   

Escobar’s removal:  It was somewhat surprising to see Cox remove Yunel Escobar from Friday night’s game after the shortstop made the fatal mistake of jogging toward first base in the same manner that Garret Anderson and many of the games other veteran do on a regular basis.  

Less than an hour earlier, I was telling a scout about how much better Escobar’s attitude had been.   Since his “talk to me when I get three hits” episode right after the All-Star break, he’s actually been pretty easy to deal with.  More importantly, he was seemingly smiling and interacting with his teammates more in the clubhouse.

During Thursday night’s game when he had slid in ahead of a tag at the plate and was ruled out, Escobar probably shouldn’t have shown up umpire Dan Iassogna by pointing toward Martin Prado and asking his opinion.  But at the same time, I thought the Braves shortstop displayed  his improved maturity when he didn’t react when Iassogna was seemingly baiting him to say something to him.  

Still even with all of the access that I get to the club, I still don’t see everything that evolves in that clubhouse.   Thus I have to think that Escobar’s removal from Friday’s game was based on something more than his decision to lackadaisically move toward first base.

There are still occasions when Escobar proves to be melodramatic.  The latest instance occurred on Saturday night, when he got hit in the left arm with Pedro Martinez’s 71 mph curveball and then remained on the ground before looking into the Braves dugout to see if the trainers were going to come out to check on him.

It was quite obvious that Escobar didn’t gain any additional supporters in the Braves clubhouse on Sunday, when he revealed that the damage created by this slow curve was going to prevent him from playing in the series finale against the Phillies.

LaRoche returns:   Adam LaRoche arrived at Citi Field today and told Cox that he was ready to return to action.  LaRoche is still feeling some discomfort in the middle of his back when he begins to swing.

TONIGHT’S LINEUP
McLouth 8
Prado 4
Jones 3
McCann 2
Escobar 6
Anderson 7
LaRoche 3
Diaz 8
Lowe 1 

LaRoche sits with sore back

Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche was out of the lineup for Sunday afternoon’s series finale against the Phillies because of a sore back. 

LaRoche strained his back while diving for a ball during the latter portion of Friday night’s loss to the Phillies and felt further discomfort before exiting Saturday night’s game in the seventh inning.

“It wasn’t horrible until I took my last swing on a changeup or something,” said LaRoche, who took some additional swings in the batting cage before confirming he was unavailable for Sunday’s game.  “Hopefully it’s nothing that will keep me out very long.”

The Braves also started Sunday’s game without Brian McCann, who was given a day to rest, and Yunel Escobar, who told the Braves he was still feeling discomfort courtesy of the Pedro Martinez curveball that struck his left arm on Saturday night.

Cox pulls Escobar again

Yunel Escobar has proven to have a much better attitude over the course of the past few weeks.  But when he took a lackadaisical stroll toward first base at the end of the first inning of Friday night’s 9-4 loss to the Phillies at Turner Field, the talented shortstop once again drew the ire of Braves manager Bobby Cox. 

This action led to Cox removing Escobar during the middle of a game for the second time this year.  Two defensive mental lapses during a June 13 game against the Orioles also led the Cuban shortstop to face the embarrassment of being pulled. 

“He just has lapses, where I think he forgets,” Cox said.

Escobar moved gingerly out of the box when he grounded out to end the
first inning.  His slow approach might have prevented him from taking
advantage of  Chase Utley’s errant throw, which slightly pull Phillies
first baseman Ryan Howard off the bag.

Cox inserted Omar Infante to play shortstop before the start of the third inning. He said his decision to wait an inning was based on his desire to allow Infante to get loose. 

“I didn’t want to put anybody in just off the bench on the third out not loose,” Cox said.

Over the course of the past two months, Escobar has proven to be a better clubhouse figure.  In addition, while making highlight plays on a nightly basis, he has committed just one error in his last 63 games.

“He’s been as good as any shortstop that I’ve seen over the past couple of months,” a Major League scout said earlier this week.   

Heyward recognized at Turner Field

As Ryan Howard passed by during batting practice at Turner Field on Friday evening,  I mentioned to Jason Heyward that he was bigger than Philadelphia’s imposing first baseman. 

“I might be taller, but I don’t think I’m bigger,” said the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Heyward.    

Heyward, who turned 20 years-old in August, may realize some slight physical growth.  But  already he’s provided reason to believe his stature could soon be every bit as big as Howard’s and many of the game’s other great players. 

Last week, Baseball America named Heyward it’s Minor League Player of the Year.  In its midseason report released in July, the highly-respected publication named him the game’s top overall prospect. 

“It’s nice to have your hard work recognized and to be seen,” Heyward said. “To see the Braves uniform on that cover twice in one season is awesome in and of itself.”

Heyward was among the Minor League Award winners that the Braves recognized before Friday night’s series opener against the Phillies.  He was named the organization’s Minor League player of the year and Craig Kimbrell was named the organization’s Minor League pitcher of the year.  

Having completed a short stint with Triple-A Gwinnett last week, Heyward is enjoying some down time before heading to Phoenix in a couple of weeks to compete in the Arizona Fall League. 

But Heyward’s primary focus remains on coming to Spring Training next year and proving that he belongs in the Majors.  Having compiled just 173 at-bats above the Class A level, the highly regarded outfielder will likely need some additional Minor League seasoning.

Still the consensus is that the suburban Atlanta product will be making his big league debut with his hometown club at some point during the 2010 season.

“The goal every year going to Spring Training is to make it to the Majors,” Heyward said. “Then once that happens, there will be other goals.”  

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