Heyward shows he's playoff key for Braves

Maybe in 17 years or so, Jason Heyward will step up for his final at-bat in an Atlanta Braves uniform and his longtime teammate Freddie Freeman will come out of the dugout and call for a pinch hitter. Freeman will give Heyward one of his famous hugs, Heyward will tear up a little bit and Braves fans will give him a standing ovation.

OK, OK … that's a bit far into the future. But Heyward did receive a great ovation on Thursday after perhaps his best game in the majors, going 5-for-5 with a home run and three doubles -- the first five-hit game of his career. In doing so, Heyward became just the fifth player this season with four extra-base hits in a game.

Heyward broke his jaw a month ago when he was hit by a Jonathon Niese fastball, and returned just a week ago, wearing a face guard to protect the injury (the face guard has come a long way since Dave Parker). He was 2-for-15 in five games, so the five-hit game has to have helped his confidence as the postseason approaches.

"It is good to get hits," said Heyward. "Good to get on base and get the game going early. We are still playing for something."

It's not exactly fair to say one player is the key to a team's postseason success, but Heyward is probably that guy for the Braves, at least among the position players. Read into this stat what you will, but the Braves are 64-30 when Heyward starts and 30-35 when he doesn't. Besides the month he missed with the broken jaw, he also missed a month early in the season after having an appendectomy. Maybe it's a coincidence that the Braves struggled both times Heyward was out, but it's hard to deny his importance in their lineup, not to mention his defense in the outfield.

The Braves had struggled all season to find a proper leadoff hitter -- you know, one who gets on base -- until Fredi Gonzalez moved Heyward there in late July. Heyward had already recovered from a slow start; after hitting below .200 through June 8, he has hit .296/.374/.508 since. That's great production from your cleanup hitter, let alone your leadoff guy.

Since returning, Heyward has also played five of his six games in center field, a sign that he'll be there in the playoffs, with B.J. Upton and his sub-.200 average relegated to the bench. Heyward will also be seeking some postseason redemption. As a rookie in 2010, he went 2-for-16 with eight strikeouts in a four-game loss to the Giants in the Division Series. (He went 1-for-5 with a double in last year's wild-card game, a loss to the Cardinals.)

Heyward's big game came on a night catcher Brian McCann had to leave after two innings with a strained groin. He's listed as day-to-day, so keep an eye on that.

The Braves are just 11-13 in September after Thursday's win, and while they once looked like a lock for the best record in the NL, they are now tied with the Cardinals at 94-65. It's not an insignificant race; the Braves are 54-24 at home and 40-41 on the road, the largest home/road split of any playoff team. They'd clearly love to get the No. 1 seed and home-field advantage through the NLCS.

But home field isn't the only incentive for the final three games: The No. 1 seed gets the Pirates/Reds winner instead of the Dodgers … and avoids Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. No offense to A.J. Burnett and Homer Bailey or whoever ends up starting Game 1 of the Division Series for the Pirates or Reds, but those guys aren't Clayton Kershaw, and you do not want to potentially face Kershaw twice in a five-game series.

(Atlanta does own the tiebreaker over St. Louis due to winning the season series, 4 to 3.)

Heyward has slipped under the radar this season, with most of the national attention surrounding the Braves devoted to Freeman's 100 RBIs, or Andrelton Simmons and his amazing defense, or rookie Evan Gattis' inspiring story, or Justin Upton's hot April, or Craig Kimbrel's dominance as closer, or Upton's struggles.

Heyward has been in the background all summer long. I have a feeling October may be his time to steal the spotlight.