Tuesday, April 20, 2010

NL East: Braves' Heyward exceeding expectations early on

By Michael Rushton, MLB Contributing Editor

National League East Team Report

(Sports Network) - The Atlanta Braves are only 12 games into the 2010 season, but that might already be enough time for MLB executives to start etching Jason Heyward's name on the National League Rookie of the Year trophy.

Atlanta wasn't sure how the early goings of the season would treat Heyward, its 20-year-old phenom who entered the campaign as the top rated prospect in baseball by MLB.com but had only played a few games above Double-A. If the early returns are any indication, things are going to be just fine for Heyward.

The left-handed slugger is hitting .302 and leads the Braves with three home runs and 15 RBI. Pressure hasn't been a problem either. Heyward is 8-for-11 with runners in scoring position and celebrated the first walk-off hit of his career on Sunday, a two-out, two-run single in the ninth versus the Rockies that gave the Braves a 4-3 victory.

"You want to be in the situation that's going to help your team out," Heyward told Atlanta's Web site. "You don't back down from the situation."

Despite his inexperience and the veteran presence of Chipper Jones, Brian McCann and Troy Glaus, Braves batting coach Terry Pendleton doesn't mind seeing Heyward at the plate with the game on the line.

"We feel confident when he is at the plate," Pendleton said on his team's site.

Thanks in part to Heyward, Atlanta has won four of its last five and is a game back of Philadelphia for first place in the NL East. The Braves host the Phillies for three straight, beginning Tuesday night.

METS: SLOW START FORCES CLUB'S HAND

Daniel Murphy got hurt and Mike Jacobs wasn't the answer, so with the New York Mets off to a 4-8 start, they decided to call up prospect Ike Davis on Monday to fill their first-base void.

The 23-year-old didn't disappoint, hitting a pair of singles and driving in one run in his debut, a 6-1 victory over the Chicago Cubs.

"It's great, especially being up here and getting a win," Davis said afterwards. "It was awesome. Getting two hits and losing wouldn't feel this good."

Davis made a case in the spring that he was ready for big-league action. New York's 2008 first-round pick hit .480 with three homers and 10 RBI in 12 spring training games before opening the year with Triple-A Buffalo, where he hit .364 with two homers and four RBI in 10 games.

Despite New York's reluctance to add him to the big-league club, things broke right for Davis. Murphy suffered a sprained right MCL and Jacobs, who New York opted to go with at first in place of Murphy, hit just .208 with one homer, two RBI and seven strikeouts before being designated for assignment.

Count outfielder Jeff Francoeur as one of those impressed with Davis' debut.

"You get a lot of guys sometimes that might come up and not really understand, but ... he understands the way to play the game, the way the game goes," Francoeur said. "He might have a rough day here and there learning things, but at the same time for me at no point is he going to be overmatched."

PHILLIES: HAVE THE BATS GONE COLD?

The Philadelphia Phillies scored 64 runs over their 7-1 start and even plated another 13 in splitting their next two games, but the club managed to bring home just one runner in losing its final two contests over the weekend to the Florida Marlins.

It is no secret the Phillies will need to hit to overcome some of the uncertainties on their pitching staff, so should they be worried after their most recent performance? Slugging first baseman Ryan Howard doesn't think so.

"There's no concern right now," Howard told Philadelphia's Web site after Sunday's 2-0 loss to the Marlins. "It's just baseball. There's going to be hot streaks, I wouldn't even call this a cold streak."

Still, the Phils can't afford to waste outings like the one Cole Hamels gave them on Sunday. The lefty held Florida to two runs over eight-plus innings, but his offense went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

"They were there for us [Sunday]," manager Charlie Manuel said. "We couldn't get the win. I think hitting comes and goes."
It needs to come often. Philadelphia's starters have compiled a 7-2 mark and 4.08 earned run average in 12 games. That number jumps to 5.59 if you take out Roy Halladay's three earned runs over three starts and 24 innings, all victories for the Phils' new ace.

MARLINS: CANTU CAN DO

Jorge Cantu has emerged as an unlikely hero for the Florida Marlins.

The 28-year-old third baseman set a major league record this year when he began the season by notching a hit and an RBI in each of his first 10 games. His run become a record last Wednesday when he homered versus Cincinnati, breaking George "Highpockets' Kelly's mark of eight straight, the previous record set in 1921, one year after the RBI became an official statistic.

"It's unbelievable," pitcher Chris Volstad told Florida's Web site last Wednesday of Cantu's run. "He's setting records. That's awesome. It's great to be part of that. The confidence we have in him, with Hanley [Ramirez] hitting ahead of him, it's pretty cool to be part of it."

Cantu's streak came to an end on Friday, when he went 1-for-5 without an RBI in an 8-6 loss to the Phillies, who had Halladay on the mound.

"I was putting good contact on the ball. What can I say," Cantu told Florida's Web site after the game. "[Halladay] was pounding the zone ... We came up a little short. The streak is over. It was fun while it lasted. It's time to start another one."
Cantu did have a hit in each game of the series, giving him a 17-game hitting streak dating back to last season. He is hitting .288 with three homers and 16 RBI in his 13 games this year.

NATIONALS: FINALLY SOLVE THE ROCKIES

Thanks to wins in three of their previous four games, the Washington Nationals were back even at 6-6 heading into the opener of a four-game set with the Colorado Rockies on Monday.

Getting above .500 would feel good for the Nationals, who are trying to avoid a third straight 100-loss season. However, Washington would first have to beat a Colorado club that came to town with a nine-game series winning streak.

No problem, as the Nationals notched a 5-2 victory to move to 7-6 on the season. Last year, Washington didn't earn victory No. 7 until May 4.

Finally, there is some confidence brewing the nation's capital.

"We have more chemistry here. It's just a different feeling," outfielder Willie Harris told Washington's Web site. "If you believe, you just don't know what could happen. We play nine innings of baseball, and the Nats are going to come at you for nine innings. That's all there is to it. Our manager [Jim Riggleman] demands it, and that's how we play."

Offense has been the key for the Nats. They have scored at least five runs in each of their last six games, ranking fifth in the NL with a .266 batting average and sixth with 65 runs scored.
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