ATLANTA — Jason Heyward moved into THE locker on Sunday – the spot in the Atlanta Braves clubhouse used by Chipper Jones.
Another confirmation of a new era in Atlanta comes Monday night, when Jones throws out the ceremonial first pitch before the Braves open their season against Cole Hamels and the Philadelphia Phillies.
While Jones has retired, expectations are high in Atlanta after the Braves added brothers Justin and B.J. Upton to join Heyward in the outfield. The Braves are looking for a repeat trip to the playoffs after a wild-card loss to St. Louis last season.
Juan Francisco and Chris Johnson, who will platoon at third base, combined for nine home runs in spring training. First baseman Freddie Freeman, the Upton brothers and rookie catcher Evan Gattis also had big springs as the Braves led the NL with 49 homers.
Gattis hit a homer that landed in the parking lot outside the Braves’ Double A Mississippi park in the team’s final exhibition game on Saturday night. The big catcher had teammates yelling and pointing as he hit more long homers during batting practice Sunday.
“Batting practice should be fun for the fans to see,” Heyward said. “We’ve got some young guys who can put the ball out of the ballpark at will in BP.”
Heyward said he had little choice when asked to move into Jones’ locker. Jones spent his full career with the Braves and was the last link to the 1995 World Series championship team.
“I was kind of pushed here a little bit,” Heyward said with a smile. “No one else wanted to come to this spot. I don’t mind. It’s a good spot.”
Heyward said it will be different to see Jones out of uniform, throwing out the first pitch.
“More than anything we’re happy for him that he was able to leave the game on his own power,” Heyward said. “He did everything there is to do in this game. We’re going to miss him as a friend and family member, but at the same time we’ve got a good group right here.”
Gattis, who hit six spring training homers, and Gerald Laird will share time as the Braves await the return of catcher Brian McCann, who is recovering from shoulder surgery. McCann is expected to rejoin the active roster by the end of April.
Manager Fredi Gonzalez said Laird will catch the opener as Tim Hudson makes his sixth season-opening start, including his third with Atlanta. Johnson will start at third base because the Braves are facing Hamels, a left-hander who will begin his first season opener.
“They are gonna be a team that we’re gonna battle the whole year,” Hamels said. “To open with them and end with them, it’s going to be a significant series to see where we stand and set the tone as to where we’re going to be in the division.”
Hamels said the Braves look like contenders.
“They’ve done a really good job with the loss of Chipper filling their needs to be a winning team,” Hamels said. “Shoot, they’ve been a winning franchise for a really long time. We’re going to have to battle them really hard this year.”
Philadelphia went 81-81 last season, ending their streaks of five straight division titles and nine consecutive winning seasons as they finished third in the NL East behind Washington and Atlanta. Center fielder Ben Revere and third baseman Michael Young are the team’s key additions.
Atlanta set its 25-man roster Sunday when the Braves placed left-hander Jonny Venters on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained elbow. Venters felt tightness in his elbow in his last spring training game and is to be examined by Dr. James Andrews. Andrews performed ligament-replacement surgery on Venters’ elbow in 2005.
There are concerns about the status of Venters, who has been a top setup man for closer Craig Kimbrel. Otherwise, Gonzalez said it has been a “great” spring for the team.
“I thought it was seven weeks of maybe the best club I’ve ever had as a manager,” Gonzalez said.