Braves’ Heyward undergoes surgery to repair broken jaw

ATLANTA — Braves right fielder Jason Heyward returned to Atlanta on Thursday to have his fractured jaw surgically repaired less than 24 hours after being hit by a pitch in the face during Wednesday’s game against the New York Mets.

The surgery required two plates to be placed in Heyward’s jaw — one plate per fracture site — and was performed by Dr. Glenn Maron, the team’s oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

Heyward’s expected recovery time is 4-6 weeks, which would set his return near or after the start of the 2012 MLB postseason.

The Braves are leading the National League East division by 15 games with 36 games remaining on the schedule.

The incident occurred Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field when Mets pitcher Jonathan Niese misplaced a 90-mph fastball and hit Heyward. Video replay appeared to show the ball ricocheted off Heyward’s helmet’s ear flap before hitting him in the face. Immediately, the Atlanta outfielder clutched his jaw and lowered himself to the ground around home plate.

Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez confirmed in his postgame press conference that Heyward was bleeding inside his mouth.

With Heyward out of the equation, Gonzalez will have Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Jordan Schafer, Joey Terdoslavich and even utility bat Evan Gattis to pencil into his everyday lineup. Once the rosters expand to 40 players on Sept. 1, Gonzalez could also choose from minor leaguers Jose Constanza and Todd Cunningham or Reed Johnson, who is on the 15-day DL with Achilles tendinitis.

As for the Braves’ leadoff position, Schafer, B.J. Upton and shortstop Andrelton Simmons are likely candidates to fill in.

The timing of the injury, from Heyward’s standpoint, could not have been more unfortunate.

The 6-foot-5 lefty was producing at career-high rates ever since Gonzalez moved him into the team’s leadoff spot, hitting .341/.414/.580 with five home runs over the past 22 games. The reigning Gold Glove winner was also playing his usual standout defense, ranking ninth among all MLB outfielders with 14 defensive runs saved.