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Heyward 'confident' heading into new season

Heyward 'confident' heading into new season

Heyward 'confident' heading into new season
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- As his nightmarish 2011 season neared its end, Jason Heyward could have taken advantage of an opportunity to rest his battered body and bruised psyche. Instead, he took just two weeks off before reforming his diet and dedicating himself to a strict conditioning program.

"I felt I had a disappointing year in a lot of ways," Heyward said. "Some of it was out of my control. But I wanted to make sure I took care of everything I can control."

Heyward has arrived at Spring Training looking ready to reap the fruits of his offseason labors. His determination and renewed confidence have excited Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez and other members of the organization who believe he can rebound and be a difference maker this year.

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"If big boy goes over there and does what he does, what he is capable of doing and nothing more, he doesn't have to go out and win a Triple Crown, that's a big boost in our offense," Gonzalez said. "That's our free-agent acquisition."

Heyward is approaching this season with a passion that was not necessarily seen during Spring Training the past few years. His shoulder is no longer bothering him and he has started to regain the same offensive approach he had at this time last year, when he was considered a future star.

"I don't buy into my own stock," Heyward said. "Sometimes stuff looks better than it feels and sometimes stuff feels better than it looks. I'm on my way to going to the next level, feeling wise. I'm picking up some things I didn't apply before this winter and getting back to some old habits."

Not long ago, Heyward would have never envisioned going through an offseason waking up at 8 a.m. and fighting the urge to satisfy his love for steak. But as this winter proved, a .227 batting average and .389 slugging percentage can motivate a humbled 22-year-old kid, who had vaulted to the top of the baseball world one year earlier.

Heyward arrived at Spring Training last year ready to build upon a memorable rookie season that had included the honor of being voted to start the All-Star Game at just 20 years old. This year, he arrived 20 pounds leaner and determined to prove last year's struggles were a product of a shoulder ailment and not an indication that he will not live up to his tremendous expectations.

"When you go through a troubling season, what are you going to do?" Braves utility man Eric Hinske said. "You've got to try to find a way out of it. He's going to adjust. He came [to camp] in better shape and he just looks ready. It's not that he didn't last year or anything. But the second year is tough."

Hinske could relate to some of the frustrations Heyward encountered last year. After winning the 2002 American League Rookie of the Year Award, he came back one year later and hit .243 during a season marred by a broken hand.

Still, few could truly understand the pressure and frustration Heyward was feeling last year as he felt helpless for the first time on a baseball field. He had been heralded the game's top prospect two years earlier and a bona fide future superstar when he had introduced himself to the Major League scene the previous summer.

Everything seemed right for Heyward until he felt his shoulder pop during a round of batting practice last March. He played through the discomfort and ended April on a hot streak. But the pain became far too burdensome when he recorded just one hit in his first 29 at-bats of May and landed on the disabled list.

Heyward returned after playing just two rehab games in June and spent the season's final three months watching his frustrations grow. Things got worse in August when he began playing behind Jose Constanza, who had made his Major League debut on July 29 at 27 years old.

"It was tough being hurt and not playing every day," Heyward said. "I knew I just had to keep looking ahead. I knew I wasn't going to get any of those days behind me back, especially not until the offseason. That's all I could do, come to the field every day ready to work."

Determined to wipe the slate clean, Heyward and his longtime personal hitting coach C.J. Stewart began breaking down his swing in early November. The young outfielder said he had already fixed some of his bad habits before he began working with new Braves hitting coach Greg Walker and assistant hitting coach Scott Fletcher.

"C.J. and I did a lot of the groundwork for my approach to hitting again," Heyward said. "We started from scratch again to get me back to being myself and simplifying things."

Chipper Jones has lauded the work Walker and Fletcher have done with Heyward and recently said the sound coming off the powerful outfielder's bat reminds him of the sound he often heard during the 2010 season.

Along with a refined offensive approach, Heyward is also seemingly approaching this season with some of the confidence that was lost last summer.

"I was confident going in last year," Heyward said. "Unfortunately, I got injured and there was nothing I could really control. Going forward, I'm definitely confident. I feel healthy right now. I've got every reason to be confident."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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