With a 15-game lead in the NL East, it would take a massive collapse for the Atlanta Braves to miss the postseason, but the team was dealt a blow on Wednesday when Jason Heyward suffered a broken jaw.
Facing New York Mets starter Jon Niese in the sixth inning, Heyward took a 90-mph fastball to the face, resulting in a broken right jaw. The injury will likely keep Heyward sidelined for the next four to six weeks, according to a tweet from Mark Bowman of MLB.com.
It's the second significant injury the 24-year-old has suffered this season, as he missed nearly a month at the end of April following an appendectomy, and the team will now have to plan on being without Heyward for its stretch run.
In a simpler time, which in this case happens to be 1978, Pittsburgh Pirates star Dave Parker played in what closely resembled a hockey mask after suffering a broken jaw in a home plate collision (a couple fantastic pictures of that can be seen here, via CBSSports). Chances are, though, that the Braves won't go quite that far in forcing Heyward back on the field.
Overall, Heyward has not put up great numbers by any means this season, batting .253/.347/.423 with 13 home runs and 37 RBI in 352 at-bats. However, he's hit .348/.419/.621 with four home runs and 10 RBI in 18 games in August, giving the team a boost.
He's also one of the best defensive outfielders in the game, winning the Gold Glove last season and not missing a beat this year when filling in for the injured B.J. Upton in center field.
On the season, the team is 65-30 with him in the lineup and just 12-19 without him, so this loss is no minor concern for a team that has been among the hottest in baseball over the past month.
The Braves currently have the best record in the majors right now at 77-49, but they are just three games up on the Pirates and Los Angeles Dodgers for home-field advantage, and a brief slide could easily knock them out of the top spot in the National League.
That would mean not facing off against the winner of the Wild Card Game, a significant advantage given the fact those teams often use their top arm in what is an elimination game, and could also set up a first-round matchup with the red-hot Dodgers, depending on how things play out over the rest of the season.
In his absence, the Braves will likely move Jordan Schafer to a starting spot, and the 26-year-old has played well in limited action this season. Over 147 at-bats he's hitting .286/.375/.415 with three home runs and 15 RBI and 25 runs scored. He's also swiped 13 bases in 16 attempts, adding speed that Heyward has not brought to the lineup this year.
Evan Gattis would have been the front-runner to move into the starting lineup earlier this year, but he's hit an unimpressive .238/.281/.310 with one home run since the All-Star break and just .161/.257/.226 in the month of August.
The team could still pursue a trade through waivers, with Nate Schierholtz of the Chicago Cubs perhaps the most attractive option. However, it's hard to imagine Schierholtz making it all the way to the Braves given his solid numbers this year (.850 OPS, 18 HR, 58 RBI) and the fact that he is still under team control through next season. If nothing else, someone would likely claim him in a block move.
Mike Morse could be another option, should the Seattle Mariners opt to waive the free-agent-to-be. He's posted a .713 OPS with 13 home runs and 27 RBI in 72 games. He may be less likely to be claimed by someone else than Schierholtz, and if he cleared waivers he likely won't cost the Braves much.
Even without Heyward, the Braves are still one of the best teams in baseball and could very well still secure the best record in the National League.
However, with a small margin separating them from the rest of the NL field, the loss of one of their top players could be what allows the rest of the league to close the gap and pass them for the best record.
Missing out on home-field advantage and the opportunity to play the Wild Card Game winner in the first round (avoiding the Dodgers in the process) could all be a direct result of losing Heyward.
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