Heyward strong in return to lineup as Braves dump Dodgers

ATLANTA — Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla, tracking the ball into the right-field grass backed off and Jason Heyward slid forward with his feet in front of him, appearing to hit the grass on his right side as he made the catch.

The Braves right fielder lifted himself up, grimaced and took couple of steps. Uggla put his arm around Heyward and walked with him for a moment.

With Heyward playing in his first game in an Atlanta uniform since an emergency appendectomy April 22, it was a moment worth fixating on — to everyone but Heyward.

“I was good,” Heyward said. “I’m good. I played enough games, did enough things (in rehab with Triple-A) Gwinnett. I wasn’t at all worried about it myself here. I just spiked myself and that didn’t feel too good. I’m thinking anything about the surgery or anything like that.”

Heyward wasted little time making his presence felt in his return from a 23-game absence, as he would go 2-for-4 with an RBI as Atlanta beat the Dodgers 8-5 to open a six-game homestand.

“It was a great way to come back,” he said. “Got to do something good, make some plays on defense, get some hits, have some good ABs, positive at-bats. That’s all I could try to do and tonight, fortunately enough, (he) came through for us.”

And in doing so, he would receive a tribute of sorts from the majors’ home run leader, Justin Upton.

It was Upton that hit a grand slam in the seventh inning, his 14th homer of the year, as part of a five-RBI night, but there he was during his postgame interviews wearing a navy blue T-shirt that said “HEYWARD OWNS ATLANTA” across it.

Asked about the shirt, a smiling Upton, who removed it immediately after cameras shut off, said “I just grabbed the closest one.”

There’s no secret who the main attraction is in Atlanta this season. It’s the new acquisitions the Uptons, brothers B.J. and Justin, and Heyward that appear on the team’s media guide and on billboards in the metro area with “Up, Up and a Hey” on them, which is also available on shirts in the team’s store.

It had been 23 games, going back to April 20 in Pittsburgh, since all three of them played together and in that time, the Braves would go 9-14.

Manager Fredi Gonzalez had options with Heyward out, with his absence allowing Evan Gattis, Reed Johnson and Jordan Schafer to play in the outfield, but it’s clear the Braves are at their most dangerous with the Uptons and Heyward in the defensive backfield.

Of course, now the trick is in getting them all on track.

While Justin Upton has looked every bit an MVP candidate, B.J., he of the richest free-agent contract in franchise history, is hitting .145 with a 32.7 percent strikeout rate, and for Heyward, it has largely been a trying season.

The Braves’ leader in home runs last year with 27, when he also won a Gold Glove and received MVP votes, Heyward posted a .121/.264/.259 slash line with just two home runs in 69 plate appearances and he had a WAR of minus 0.2 in ’13 before his emergency appendectomy in Denver.

Even his defensive numbers were down with a UZR of 1.6 — that figure stood at 22.8 in ’12 — and zero defensive runs saved – he had 20 last year.

But Friday night may have been a sign he’s ready to break out.

Heyward came into Friday hitting .111 against the Dodgers, his lowest average against any National League team and while he started off much the same way, grounding out in his first at-bat against Hyun-Jin Ryu, he would lace a fastball to left field for his third double of the season his next time up. Then, in the seventh inning, he lined a single to left, scoring Andrelton Simmons.

It was just Heyward’s second multi-hit game of the season and the first since April 3 vs. the Phillies. It also looked more in line with the way Heyward finished his rehab starts, posting a .300 average (6-for-20), a double and six RBIs.

Is he back? For now, Heyward is happy with simply being back in the lineup.

“I was just excited to play baseball,” he said.