ATLANTA -- Freddie Freeman's two-run home run on Thursday afternoon in Miami secured the 24-year-old first baseman's third consecutive 20-homer season in his young career, but it also brought Freeman just two RBIs away from his first 100-RBI season in the big leagues.
Freeman has been a stalwart in the middle of the Atlanta lineup since the beginning of the 2011 campaign, but his steady production this season has been highlighted by an impressive uptick in the success he has found at the plate in high-leverage situations. His .423 batting average and 1.199 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position represent marked improvements from slightly more human marks in his first two years as a regular -- only Miguel Cabrera and Allen Craig have hit for a higher average in that situation this season.
"For me, when the game's on the line, there's a handful of guys that you want at the plate, and he's one of them," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He can take you out of the ballpark like he did yesterday, or he can flip a base hit to left field and get a big RBI that way. He's a guy that puts the ball in play, so good things happen when you do that."
Freeman's heading into Friday night's series opener against the Padres put him third among National League hitters, behind Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt and Cincinnati's Brandon Phillips.
"He's just a good hitter," Gonzalez said. "He's got a great approach -- he keeps it simple, really. If you look at his swings, there's not a double-toe-tap with a high knee and a finish. No, it's a pretty basic, pretty simple swing, and it's quick. He's got great range. It doesn't have to be a strike. If it's that far outside or that far inside, he can cover it."
While hitters are hardly in control of how many runners they have the opportunity to drive in on a particular trip to the plate, Freeman's knack for making the most of his appearances in critical situations is hard to ignore. He leads the Braves by a wide margin in win probability added, an aggregate measure of how the result of each of a player's at-bats affects his team's probability of winning a particular game. Freeman's 5.1 WPA this season is nearly double that of rookie Evan Gattis, who sits second on the team with a 2.6 WPA.
Heyward takes BP for first time since breaking jaw
ATLANTA -- Jason Heyward rejoined his teammates as a full participant in pregame warm-ups on Friday afternoon at Turner Field for the first time since suffering a fractured jaw when he was hit by a fastball from Mets pitcher Jon Niese on Aug. 21.
After going through an entire batting practice session without incident, Heyward reiterated that he would not have been cleared for any new activity if he had not been steadily making progress in recovering his strength and comfort at the plate and on the field while the Braves were on their recent seven-game road trip.
"Nothing's holding me back," Heyward said. "I have to let time take its course now."
Heyward shagged fly balls in right-center field for the opening rounds of batting practice before heading to the cage to hit with a group that also consisted of outfielders Reed Johnson and B.J. Upton and second baseman Dan Uggla. With first base coach Terry Pendleton throwing, Heyward took swings wearing a helmet that had a special additional cover to protect his right jaw from the helmet's earhole all the way down to the edge of his mouth.
"He said he's feeling better," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "His strength is back. Obviously, when you can start eating solid food, you get your strength back a lot better. I'm just looking forward to see him hit on the field."
On Monday, the bars and bands that were restricting the movement of Heyward's jaw were removed. While the resumption of batting practice was a critical step in Heyward's return to full baseball activities, Gonzalez elected not to set any new timetable for the next steps toward his return.
"I'm just letting him go out there, let him run around, let him do whatever he's capable of doing," Gonzalez said.
Earlier this week, general manager Frank Wren said that Heyward would be sent to the instructional league at some point in the coming weeks in order to see some live pitching before returning to action as the Braves prepare for October.
Downs struggles in return from finger injury
ATLANTA -- After an encouraging meeting with Braves associate physician and hand specialist Dr. Gary Lourie before Friday night's series opener against the Padres, left-hander Scott Downs made his return to the Atlanta bullpen for the first time since sustaining a fractured finger on his right hand last Saturday against the Phillies.
Downs entered a tie game with two outs and a runner on second base in the eighth and surrendered the game-winning RBI single off the bat of Padres pinch-hitter Logan Forsythe. Jordan Walden, making just his second appearance since returning from a nagging groin injury, was charged with the run and the loss after walking Tommy Medica and throwing a wild pitch that allowed Medica to advance to second.
After the Braves' 4-3 loss, manager Fredi Gonzalez confirmed that Downs would be available as normal going forward. Since he was acquired from the Angels on July 29 in exchange for reliever Cory Rasmus, Downs has made 19 appearances for the Braves, posting a 2.25 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 12 innings. He was just one of six relievers to see action on Friday night after rookie starter David Hale was lifted after five shutout innings.
Eric Single is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.