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Heyward gets taste of higher competition

Heyward gets taste of higher competition

ST. LOUIS -- As he approaches the opportunity to realize his Major League dream with the team approximately 15 minutes from his childhood home, Jason Heyward finds himself watching Braves games and feeling emotions that didn't exist when he was simply a fan.

"It's different this year, looking at the box score," Heyward said. "No longer am I looking at it and saying 'The Braves won today,' or, 'We lost a tough one.' It's like you actually feel it now."

Having spent nearly five weeks playing for manager Bobby Cox during his first big league Spring Training this year, Heyward established a bond with Martin Prado, Brian McCann, Chipper Jones and some of the other Braves that will likely welcome him to the Majors within the next year.

At the same time, the intellectually advanced and highly confident 19-year-old outfielder gained further belief that he already possesses the skills and mindset that will help him find success once he's provided the opportunity to test his powerful swing against Major League pitchers.

"Obviously, it's going to be whenever the Braves want me to go," Heyward said. "I just have to make sure that I'm prepared to help them out whenever they make that call."

While the Braves aren't publicly revealing a specific plan for Heyward, there's a belief that he'll complete this season with Mississippi and then spend the first half of the 2010 season with Triple-A Gwinnett. If he continues on his current path, by this time next year, there's a good chance he'll find himself playing in the Atlanta outfield.

"We are very happy with his progress and he has continued to perform at a high level," Braves general manager Frank Wren said. "He was very impressive in Spring Training and after he got healthy with [Class A Advanced] Myrtle Beach. Players will tell you when they are ready to move to the next level by how they are performing."

Just two years removed from the completion of his dominant career at suburban Atlanta's Henry County High School, Heyward is in the midst of a year that has proven to become even more memorable since the completion of his first big league camp.

Last week, Baseball America ranked Heyward atop its list of the top 25 midseason prospects. Then, on Sunday afternoon at Busch Stadium, the 6-foot-4, 225-pound outfielder joined many of the game's other rising stars to compete in the rain-shortened XM All-Star Futures Game.

"This is awesome," Heyward said during a pregame interview. "This is the reward for my job. The long bus rides. The hotels and all that stuff. This is just a great reward to be with and around all these great players, who are good guys off the field as well." Heyward, who was grabbed by the Braves with the 14th overall selection in the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, waited through a four-hour-plus rain delay before delivering a second-inning single and grounding out sharply in the fourth inning.

Playing right field, he was denied a defensive gem when it was ruled that he trapped the ball while sliding to catch a first-inning fly in shallow right field.

The imposing Heyward's most impressive display occurred during batting practice, when he drilled a number of towering shots, including one that fell just short of reaching the stadium's third level.

"[Heyward's] BP was the best one that I saw all day," one American League scout said.

Heyward's second-inning single followed the one delivered by Tyler Flowers, the powerful catcher that the Braves sent to the White Sox in exchange for Javier Vazquez.

Another former Braves prospect, Neftali Feliz, who was part of the package that brought Mark Teixeira to Atlanta, recorded two strikeouts and issued a walk in a scoreless first inning for the World Team, which utilized Braves farmhand Barbaro Canizares as their starting first baseman.

The 29-year-old Canizares, who played four games for the Braves in June, provided a first-inning RBI single to account for the game's first run.

"It's a lot of fun to be on this stage," Heyward said.

Wanting to provide Heyward the opportunity to make a natural progression through the Minors, the Braves allowed Heyward to hit .296 with 10 homers and 12 doubles in 49 games with Myrtle Beach before promoting him to Double-A Mississippi. In the eight games that followed, he's hit .346 with three doubles and two homers. Heyward has also raised his slugging percentage over .50 percentage points since last season.

"The power numbers are coming into play now," Heyward said. "I feel like it's always been there, but now I'm letting it work."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"content":["all-star_game" ] }
{"content":["all-star_game" ] }