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11/19/11 3:40 PM EST

Heyward motivated during offseason workouts

Sporting leaner frame, Braves outfielder aims to return to '10 form

ATLANTA -- Jason Heyward never thought he would be waking up by 8 a.m. on a regular basis during the offseason. But at the same time, the Braves' young outfielder never anticipated experiencing the kind of season that has motivated him to work harder than he ever has in preparation for the next season.

"I've gone into every offseason with the same mindset and I've left every offseason with the same mindset -- that I did the best I could," Heyward said. "This offseason, I'm taking the approach we're going to do the best that we can. But we're going to do it the hardest we can also.

"It takes some time. But I'm glad I'm learning this stuff at 22 [years old] and not having to fight my way through the tail end."

As Heyward instructed a group of inner-city children during a clinic sponsored by L.E.A.D. at Turner Field on Saturday morning, he looked much different than he had while battling frustration most of this past season.

While experiencing early-morning workouts at least five times a week and sticking to a diet that has eliminated steaks and added a heavy dose of fruit and salads, the Braves right fielder has developed a much leaner athletic frame.

When Heyward reported to Spring Training in February, he was a chiseled 256 pounds. With his weight now sitting between 235-240 pounds, he's feeling a little more comfortable. The most noticeable difference is that his shoulders are not nearly as bulky as they had been earlier this year.

"I feel great about it," Heyward said. "I still have my muscles and I still have my strength. I'm still able to throw some weight around. I'm not heavy and I'm not bulky. I'm not feeling too tight anywhere."

From both a physical and mental standpoint, it is apparent Heyward is feeling much better than he did while he batted .227 with 14 home runs and a .708 OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) this past season.

Heyward is no longer dealing with the stress that mounted as he was unable to live up to the great expectations he had produced during his 2010 rookie season. Nor is he feeling the right shoulder discomfort that became more bothersome as the season progressed.

Attempting to compensate and avoid the pain, Heyward continued to alter the mechanics of his swing in an adverse manner.

"Basically what I've done this offseason is start from scratch as far as hitting goes," said Heyward, while explaining that he still has not starting taking soft toss or hitting off a tee yet.

When Heyward felt his shoulder pop during a round of batting practice in the middle of March, he did not believe there was any reason for concern. His shoulder had occasionally plagued him during his time in the Minors. But the discomfort usually subsided within a couple days or weeks.

Unfortunately for the Braves and Heyward, the discomfort lingered through this past summer. Multiple MRI exams showed no structural damage. But he found only marginal relief after spending nearly a month on the disabled list in May and June.

"I felt good the first month of the season," Heyward said. "The medicine kicked in. I was working out. I was feeling good. Obviously you had the adrenaline of coming into the season again, and I was having fun. I was off to a good first month. I hit one more homer than I had the previous year [in April] and I was hitting 20 points higher. In my mind, I was ready to go."

When Heyward exited April hitting .263 with seven homers and a .879 OPS, there wasn't much reason for concern. He batted .400 (14-for-35) with three homers in the final eight games of the month. But once he recorded just two hits in his first 29 at-bats in May, it became apparent something wasn't right.

Heyward left a May 10 game against the Nationals after three at-bats, and then told media members that his shoulder had been bothering him since Spring Training. He played sparingly during the next two weeks and was placed on the disabled list on May 22. He was activated on June 15 after playing just two Minor League rehab games.

Looking back, Heyward wishes he would have rested his shoulder a little more in March and also chosen to play a few more games at the end of his three-week stint on the DL.

"I was feeling good [at the end of the DL stint]," Heyward said. "But now that you have no pain, you have to take the time to get your swing together and get yourself together. You live and learn."

One year after fans voted him to start the All-Star Game at the ripe age of 20, Heyward was introduced to far too many tough lessons this year. One of his toughest moments came in late July when Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez informed him that his playing time might be reduced.

Gonzalez's message was delivered to prepare Heyward for the possibility that the Braves might acquire a corner outfielder before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Had he been forced to sit behind Carlos Beltran or Hunter Pence, Heyward might have had an easier time understanding the decision.

But he certainly didn't expect to spend most of August sitting in favor of Jose Constanza, a speedy 26-year-old rookie who had never played a Major League game before July 29.

"I understood that Fredi is under a lot of pressure," Heyward said. "Of course I'm not going to understand everything about not playing. But that's a part of the game. You've got a manager coming in who is trying to fill [the stadium] and fill No. 6's [Bobby Cox's] shoes. He wants to put the best team on the field that day."

Those who have seen Heyward's tremendous capabilities understand that in order for the Braves to be at their best, they need a healthy Heyward to return next year and start to live up to those tremendous expectations he produced in 2010.

Fortunately for the Braves, it appears Heyward is motivated to make this happen.

"I love to work hard," Heyward said. "When it comes down to it, practice is what makes perfect."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.