8/19/2014 12:32 A.M. ET
Russell's reversal proves baffling for opponent
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
PITTSBURGH -- When A's right-handed slugger Josh Donaldson reached first base after hitting a single off James Russell in Sunday night's eighth inning, he turned to Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and said, "I think that's the first time anyone has brought a lefty in to face me."
Since Russell was acquired from the Cubs on July 31, it has been well documented that he is not the traditional left-handed reliever. Though he had success against left-handed hitters in previous years, he has struggled against them this season and proven quite successful against right-handed hitters.
But Donaldson seemingly did not know about these reverse splits as he found himself baffled as the eighth inning progressed. When the A's brought left-handed hitter Stephen Vogt to the plate with one out in a one-run game, Gonzalez stuck with right-handed reliever Anthony Varvaro. But instead of sticking with Varvaro to face the two right-handed hitters -- Donaldson and Derek Norris -- that were due up next, Gonzalez went with Russell.
With Jordan Walden and David Carpenter both unavailable because of recent workloads, Gonzalez chose to go with Russell, who has limited right-handed hitters to a .114 (8-for-70) batting average and .241 on-base percentage this season. Left-handed batters have hit .324 (23-for-71) with a .385 OBP against him.
"We had to come up with something," Gonzalez said. "That's one of those situations where you look at the numbers and you go, OK, here they are, put [yourself] on the line there on national TV. ... It's one of those things that was unconventional, but the only thing we had to go on was the numbers from the splits."
Heyward's move back to leadoff paying off
PITTSBURGH -- Given a choice, Jason Heyward would seemingly prefer resting in the middle of the lineup. But since moving back to the leadoff spot last week, Heyward has once again provided clear indication that he is the one Braves player best suited to fill this role.
Heyward made his presence known again on Monday night, when he opened a 7-3 win over the Pirates with his third leadoff homer of the season and sixth of his career. The 24-year-old right fielder with the special ability to influence games with power and speed added two singles, including one of the infield variety, and a cushion-producing sacrifice fly.
"I feel it's harder to influence [the game] from the leadoff spot for me because there's less moving runners over and less sac-fly situations and all of those things," Heyward said. "But when I'm able to, it's awesome, because the guys feed off of it and it's just good to get the ball rolling and get the immediate pressure on the pitcher."
Heyward has batted .292 (7-for-24) with a .333 on-base percentage since moving back to the leadoff spot. But instead of looking at these numbers created by small sample sizes, the Braves can simply be encouraged that they have won five of six games since manager Fredi Gonzalez decided to place Heyward's name at the top of the batting order again.
As the week has progressed, Heyward has conjured memories of last year when he was moved to the leadoff spot one day after the Braves began a 14-game winning streak. The young outfielder batted .345 with a .418 on-base percentage in the 23 games he played between moving to the leadoff spot and suffering a broken jaw that sidelined him for a month.
"He can do a lot of stuff," Gonzalez said. "We're a good club when he is up there. Right out of the get-go, the pitcher has to deal with a guy who can run you out of the ballpark."
After spending this season's first 2 1/2 months as the Braves' leadoff hitter, Heyward was given a chance to move to the middle of the lineup. But this simply led to unsuccessful experiments with Tommy La Stella and B.J. Upton at the top of the lineup.
Whether or not Heyward truly enjoys the leadoff spot takes a backseat to his understanding of the value he can provide in that role.
"I just try to do the best I can wherever I'm at," Heyward said.
• After starting each of the three games this past weekend against the A's, Evan Gattis was given a chance to rest Monday as he enjoyed his 28th birthday. Gattis has batted .235 with a .666 OPS since returning from the back ailment that sidelined him during the first three weeks of July.
• If the Braves were thinking about activating right-hander Shae Simmons within the next day or two, they likely altered their thought as Simmons struggled in his second rehab appearance for Triple-A Gwinnett on Monday night. He surrendered two hits, issued two walks and did not record an out while allowing four earned runs. The reliever has been sidelined since July 24 with a right shoulder strain. He worked a 10-pitch scoreless inning for Gwinnett on Saturday.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.