ATLANTA -- Once the face of the franchise, Jason Heyward returned home on Friday to the stadium he sent into a frenzy in April 2010 with a home run in his first career plate appearance.
Over five years later, Heyward is now a part of the National League Central champion St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals, owners of the best record in baseball at 100-59, clinched the division on Wednesday night with an 11-1 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was Heyward's third-inning grand slam that put the Cards up 6-0 and all but locked up an easy victory to give St. Louis its third consecutive division title.
"There's a lot of good things going on for us," Heyward said. "Now we get to come here and get ready for the postseason."
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It's the first time Heyward has come back to Turner Field since he was traded away last November in the deal that brought in Shelby Miller from St. Louis. Heyward, a Metro Atlanta native, played eight seasons in the organization after being the Atlanta Braves' first-round draft pick in 2007.
"It's cool," said Heyward when asked about coming back. "I wish there were more people here I knew on the team, but it's a nice way to finish up the season."
In most cases, a player returning to his old team's stadium would still know a majority of the guys in the opposing dugout, but Atlanta has made an unprecedented amount of moves in the past year. Only four players -- Freddie Freeman, Andrelton Simmons, Julio Teheran, and Christian Bethancourt -- remain on the Braves' roster that played with Heyward in 2014. Because of that, Heyward, who had the night off in Game 1 of the series, may not have been feeling the nostalgia that's expected when players return to face their old teams.
"I'd say it'd be more of a homecoming if more teammates that I played with were here," said Heyward. "More guys from the past, more guys from the recent past. Right now, there's just not a whole lot of guys left. It doesn't feel too homecoming-ish. I know this is the place I broke in with and played a lot of games here for, but it's just a different team ... different vibe."
Despite the homecoming not panning out like usual, Heyward still had plenty of memorable performances in Atlanta, and he was a part of a team that contended every season and made it to the postseason in three of his five years with the Braves. Other than the final seven games of 2014, the team didn't play any meaningless regular season games with Heyward on the roster.
"From my first memory to my last, (it was) a lot of fun," Heyward said about his time in Atlanta. "A lot of good teammates and coaching staff. We had some good times here and played a lot of good baseball. Last year was the first time of my career where we played games that didn't count, and there's something to be said about that."
The change in scenery has produced one of Heyward's better seasons in the MLB. After a slow start in a Cardinals uniform, Heyward has been in great form dating all the way back to May. He's batting .305 since April and .316 since the All-Star break. The combination of his improved hitting, Gold Glove fielding, and efficient base running has been an integral part of the Cardinals impressive run to 100 wins and home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs.
"It's been a blast," said Heyward, who's batting a career-high .292 in 2015. "I feel like they match me in mindset in that you're trying to get to the World Series and win it every year. You gotta punch your ticket. You gotta be in it to win it. The goal from spring training is to be a part of the October postseason, and it's a lot of fun having a fan base behind you that wants to make that happen."
In addition to a career-high batting average, Heyward has also notched career-highs in hits, doubles and stolen bases in 2015. With an 88.5 percent success rate on stolen bases, Heyward is third in the majors among those with at least 20 attempts on the season. His 5.8 WAR ranks 11th in MLB and is second to his 2012 mark of 6.5 for a career high.
Heyward will enter 2016 as a free agent coming off of the two-year extension deal the Braves signed him to in February 2014.