The hard-throwing right-hander and the heavy-hitting lefty face off for the first time as the first-place Atlanta Braves look to shake off a rare series loss when their nine-game road trip continues against the Washington Nationals.
The path to Tuesday night’s matchup has been similar for both franchise-cornerstone rookies: a hyped debut that somehow eclipsed lofty expectations; solid play which led to All-Star talk; a relative slump that proved they were mere mortals; and a second-half “comeback” that has reaffirmed them as the faces of not just tomorrow, but today.
Strasburg (5-2, 2.32 ERA) has won his last three outings - the Nationals his last four. Heyward has similarly rounded back into form by coming off the disabled list and, again armed with a healthy thumb, put together a nine-game hitting streak and six straight multihit games.
Most importantly, however, despite recent pressure from Philadelphia, Atlanta (57-41) enters with the second-biggest division lead in baseball - 4 1/2 games over the Phillies - while Washington (42-57) sits in the NL East cellar, 15 1/2 games back and losers of three straight.
The Braves, though, have alternated wins and losses the past six games, and come off a series loss for just the second time since May 10. On Sunday, they stranded 11 runners in their second extra-inning defeat to Florida in three days, losing 5-4 in 11 after loading the bases four times but only scoring one run in those situations.
“You let the other team off the hook that many times, eventually they’re going to cash in and beat you,” said Chipper Jones(notes), who had a pinch-hit RBI double and has quelled retirement talk - for the time being - by hitting .288 since his average bottomed out at .219 on May 26.
Atlanta will certainly need to take better advantage of its opportunities against Strasburg, on the short end of a 5-0 defeat in Atlanta on June 28, when he allowed four runs and six hits in 6 1-3 innings. That was the last defeat the San Diego State product has taken, since going 3-0 with a 2.38 ERA and 27 strikeouts.
“He’s as advertised,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said following his team’s win that night. “He’s dynamite. He’s great. He’s got maybe the best changeup for a first-year player I’ve ever seen.”
The second batter Strasburg faces Tuesday night will be Heyward, who was put on the DL the night of Strasburg’s last start against Atlanta due to a deep bone bruise in his left thumb.
Heyward appears to be fully recovered, with 14 hits in 26 at-bats over the past week, and is back to resembling the budding star who homered in his first career plate appearance. The 20-year-old right fielder, though, has gone homerless in 18 consecutive games and 41 of 42 after hitting 10 through the first two months of the season.
Lost in all the intrigue is Braves right-hander Tommy Hanson(notes) (8-6, 4.12), who, while not a prospect the caliber of Strasburg, is a homegrown product with an impressive resume - and, possibly future - himself. At 23 - less than two years older than Strasburg - and with little more than a full year in the majors, Hanson goes for his 20th career win.
He gave up four runs in six innings of a 7-6, 10-inning win over the Nationals on May 5, and he’s 2-0 with a 2.94 ERA in five starts against them. In his last outing, Hanson allowed two runs and six hits over 6 1-3 innings against San Diego on Wednesday, but was denied the win when closer Billy Wagner(notes) blew a 4-2 ninth-inning lead en route to a 6-4 loss in 12 innings.