The Atlanta Braves got a massive boost when it was announced that Jason Heyward would be activated from the DL on Friday, and would be starting in center field and leading off for the Braves in the opening game of their weekend series with the Cubs. Heyward is expected to play five innings and/or get three at bats on Friday.
Since a Jonathon Niese pitch broke Heyward's jaw on August 21st, Atlanta has struggled. The team's record is 13-13, but they've scored four or more runs in just nine of those 26 games. Over the last 30 days, which coincidentally lines up perfectly with Heyward's injury, the team is hitting .228/.296/.358. BJ Upton and Jordan Schafer have gotten nearly all of the reps in center field with Heyward out, and the pair (along with two plate appearances from Reed Johnson) has combined to hit .188/.258/.250 since that pitch smashed Heyward in the jaw. Those struggles are exemplified when you consider that those two have hit leadoff in 22 or the 26 games that Heyward has missed in this last recent stint.
In 22 games hitting at the top of Atlanta's order, Heyward is hitting .341/.414/.580 and the Braves are 17-5. Heyward has also gotten playing time in his usual spot of right field while hitting leadoff, but the recent struggles of Schafer and the Upton of late will thrust him back into center, with Justin Upton and a revolving door of the elder Upton, Schafer, Johnson, Evan Gattis, and Joey Terdoslavich in the third outfield position. When BJ Upton or Schafer is playing, Heyward will likely shift over to right while Upton goes to left, but Heyward starting in center means that Upton is in right and one of Johnson, Gattis, or Terdoslavich in left.
It's a simple premise – the Braves are a good team without Heyward, a great team with him, and an incredible team with him leading off. The Braves are more than likely going to clinch the NL East title this weekend, and getting homefield advantage throughout the NL playoffs is so huge for a team that is an MLB-best 52-22 at home this season. With just a 1.5 game advantage on the Cardinals and a 2.5 game edge on the Dodgers for the NL's top seed, every win counts down the stretch, and Heyward's return will help the Braves pick up those essential extra wins.