As they prepare to make what they hope is an extended run through October, the Braves are comforted by the fact that Heyward had a chance to spend the regular season's final week shaking off the rust that had developed as he missed a month after his jaw was fractured by Jon Niese's fastball on Aug. 21.
In the process of batting .267 (8-for-30) with a .371 on-base percentage in the nine games he played after returning, Heyward did not show any hesitancy at the plate or while playing center field, the position he will man during the playoffs. He made a headfirst diving catch in shallow center field and bounced into the center-field wall while making another impressive grab.
"It's huge having him back out there," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "Just seeing him back on the field gives you a good feeling."
Heyward's most significant influence came after he was moved to the top of the lineup on July 27. In the 23 games he played between being moved to the leadoff spot and breaking his jaw, he batted .345 with a .418 on-base percentage. The Braves went 19-4 and averaged five runs per game during that span.
Jordan Schafer and Andrelton Simmons had been filling the leadoff role on a consistent basis due to Heyward's injuries. Schafer batted .240 with a .331 on-base percentage in 39 games, and Simmons batted .219 with a .256 on-base percentage in 64 games.
"I think he has grown as a player, because I think he knows what it takes to play this game every day," Gonzalez said of Heyward. "He brings it every day. There is no coasting. He lays it on the line every single day and that is what it takes to be an elite player in this league."
Heyward batted .254 with 14 home runs and a .776 OPS in the 104 games he played during this injury-tarnished season. The 24-year-old outfielder underwent an emergency appendectomy on April 22 and returned to Atlanta's lineup May 17.
After struggling for two weeks, Heyward entered June hitting just .146 (15-for-103). But from June 2 through the end of the regular season, he batted .273 with a .876 OPS. During this span, he validated the hype that surrounded him when he entered the 2010 season as Atlanta's 20-year-old right fielder.
"I feel like I grew up some," Heyward said. "That's what you want to do, especially when you start at 20 years old. You like to continue to grow and progress. Starting from where I started to playing a big role on this team, it has been nice. I know I affect a ballgame when I'm in the lineup."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Bowman's Blog, and follow her on Twitter @mlbbowman. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.