Jason Heyward smiles when he thinks back to one particular at-bat on Sunday. It’s a memory he doesn’t mind reliving.
The Braves and Cardinals were scoreless when Heyward came to the plate in the third inning with the bases full of his teammates. There were two outs, so he expected St. Louis starter Lance Lynn to put the ball over the plate.
“I knew he had to come to me,” Heyward said.
Heyward worked the count until it was full. Lynn threw another strike, and that time, Heyward lashed a double into the right field corner, driving in all three runners and giving the Braves a three-run lead in a game that they would win 7-4 to sweep the Cardinals.
“He was in a situation right there with the bases loaded,” Heyward said. “He didn’t want to walk a run in. You want to make a guy make a pitch you can hit. And that’s what happened. He had no choice.”
That’s part of the philosophy the Braves have adopted this year, especially with runners on base. They want to force pitchers to throw a lot of pitches and they want be patient. But they also want to aggressively jump on the right pitch, if and when it comes their way.
After watching the Braves hit a dismal .195 with the bases loaded in 2011 – next to last in the majors — manager Fredi Gonzalez placed an emphasis on situational hitting when he interviewed hitting coaches in the offseason.
New hires Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher then spent spring training stressing the importance of what he calls “competitive at-bats” at all times, not just with runners on base. They also implemented daily drills, repeatedly working with the hitters on what they need to do with the bat depending on the situation.
“We brought it to the attention of the club,” Gonzalez said. “That was one of the things we spoke about in spring training. I think it’s a mindset. I really do. And I think it’s contagious with the team.”
The result: The Braves are hitting .311 with the bases loaded this season, sixth in the majors.
They’ve also improved their hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) from .249 in 2011 to .257, a number that dropped after they went 1-for-9 in Wednesday’s 8-4 loss to the Marlins. The Braves are also fourth in the majors in runs scored from the seventh inning and beyond with 63.
“The big thing about situational hitting is that we want you to be a smart hitter and we want you to compete,” Walker said. “But the big thing is we want you to want the at-bat. ‘I want the at-bat. I want to have it.’ If you fail, the next guy is going to pick you up. This team has done a great job of picking each other up.”
Heyward’s bases-loaded double was just another in a line of big hits the Braves have delivered in clutch situations. Gonzalez could think of only one game – Joe Blanton’s complete-game three-hitter in the Phillies’ 4-0 win on May 3 – where the Braves didn’t have competitive at-bats.
Not surprisingly, the resurgence has been led by the rejuvenated Chipper Jones, who is hitting .344 with RISP. Jones and Dan Uggla lead the Braves with 19 RBIs in those situations, but Martin Prado is hitting .333 with 15 RBIs and Freddie Freeman has driven in 18 runs with RISP.
“It’s just a better approach than in the past,” said Brian McCann, who has a grand slam and 16 RBIs with RISP in 2012. “I’ve been here for seven years, and there’s been times where we’ve led the league with runners in scoring position, and there are times when we’re not so good. I just think every year’s different, and this year we’re putting together better at-bats than in years past.”
Not surprising, the clutch hitting has provided a boost to the overall offense.
The Braves are third in the majors in scoring with 200 runs – they were 22nd last year – and fourth in hitting at .270, after finishing at .242 in 2011, 26th out of 30 teams. Freeman pointed out that the Braves also had Michael Bourn for only half of last season and that Heyward, Uggla, Jones, McCann and Prado all struggled through either sub-par or injury-filled years.
“We had a lot of guys who didn’t play like they wanted to last year,” Freeman said. “Everybody is playing like they normally can right now, so the numbers are going to be different than last year.”
Heyward had another two-out RBI in Tuesday’s 6-2 victory over the Reds and the Braves were 4-for-10 with RISP, bouncing back after going hitless in five chances in Monday’s 3-1 loss to Cincinnati.
“We try to stay simple. We try not to do too much,” Heyward said. “We want to win and go immediately and take that at-bat, take that responsibility. We try to relax and try to go up there and put together the best AB. If we don’t get it done, hopefully the next guy will get it done.”