Wiedmer: Don Mattingly lets Jason Heyward be hero

Wiedmer: Don Mattingly lets Jason Heyward be hero

October 5th, 2013 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward, center, hits a two-RBI single, scoring teammates Justin Upton and Chris Johnson, in the seventh inning of Game 2 of the National League division series against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

ATLANTA -- Keenly aware of his Atlanta Braves postseason history, the fan held high a sign at Turner Field on Thursday night that proclaimed: "The last government shutdown was [begun in] 1995."

Then his favorite team, the one that won it all 18 years ago, went out and performed as ineffectively as Congress, losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers to fall behind 1-0 in their best-of-five National League division series.

But if L.A. skipper Don Mattingly keeps mistaking Braves reserve Reed Johnson for Babe Ruth, Atlanta just might add enough wins to Friday night's 4-3 victory to keep that World Series talk alive for at least one more week.

In some top-secret data base apparently known only to Mattingly, he decided Johnson was apparently a more dangerous hitter than Braves leadoff man Jason Heyward.

So with two outs in the bottom of the seventh, Mattingly had reliever Paco Rodriguez intentionally walk Johnson to load the bases for Heyward in a game the Dodgers already trailed 2-1.

And what Heyward did next against P-Rod will be talked about for years to come if Atlanta eventually wins this division series rather than merely tie it until Sunday's Game 3.

With 48,966 on their feet and waving their red foam tomahawks as if it really was 1995 again, Heyward ripped a P-Rod offering back up the middle to drive home two runs and give the Braves a 4-1 lead. Hanley Ramirez smacked a two-run homer just inside the left-field foul pole to pull the Dodgers within one in the top of the eighth, but that would be it.

"The top," Atlanta native Heyward replied when asked where that game-clinching single ranked in his young career. "At least for now."

Said Mattingly in attempting to explain the walk to Johnson in order to get to Heyward: "Paco is a guy who pitches down and fits into Reed. [Paco's] a guy we think gets Heyward out. Been getting those guys out all year."

Said Heyward with a shrug: "That's baseball. Lefty on lefty. You're playing the matchup. I'm just glad to get the hit. That's all I can control."

Atlanta did all it could to get back some semblance of control over its own destiny by saluting its proud past before the game officially began. Retired manager Bobby Cox -- he of the 14 straight division titles -- threw out the ceremonial first pitch to injured pitcher Tim Hudson. Cox then left the Turner Field playing surface to watch the game with former President Jimmy Carter, who was sitting in a box just to the right of home plate.

(Thankfully, the government shutdown still allows for Secret Service protection for ex-presidents.)

Yet despite that electric pregame moment, this night also had a touch of melancholy to it long before the Dodgers put the Braves in a 1-0 hole in the opening inning.

Catcher Brian McCann, born in Georgia, always a Brave, was asked in the pregame interview room if he'd considered during his drive to the ballpark if this might be his last home game in an Atlanta uniform.

"When I think about it, it's definitely there," said the 29-year-old McCann, who's hit at least 20 home runs in seven of his eight full big-league seasons. "But what we're doing here today is way more important than what's going to happen to me after the season."

It should be noted that McCann drew a walk at the start of the seventh before being replaced by B.J. Upton, who would come around to score on Heyward's single.

But everybody played a big role in this one. Shortstop Andrelton Simmons smoked a double to tie it at 1 after two innings. Chris Johnson sent a grounder between third and short to give the Braves a 2-1 lead in the fourth. Suddenly a sold-out crowd at the Ted had something bigger to cheer about than the presence of Cox and Carter.

Finally, with the emotions of a packed crowd hanging on every Craig Kimbrel pitch, Carl Crawford struck out to end the game and knot the series at 1-all heading to Sunday's game in L.A. and another chance to see if the Braves can remember to play like it's 1995 all over again.

"It's huge," said Kimbrel, hardly understating the moment. "Nobody wanted to go out to L.A. down two games. Hopefully we can keep that momentum going now."

Especially if Mattingly keeps walking lightly used reserves to get to the Braves' bigger bats.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.