ATLANTA—Five years after their teams squared off for the Georgia Class AAAA state championship, Jason Heyward and Buster Posey found themselves on a considerably larger stage.
Heyward’s Braves and Posey’s Giants met in a best-of-five National League Division Series, and suddenly a lot of writers from around the country were asking the two Georgia guys about that best-of-three series in 2005.
If you happened to have been at that high school championship series, could you even have imagined you were watching two players who would finish first and second in Baseball America’s Rookie of the Year voting five years later?
Could you have imagined that you were watching a level of talent that major league franchises can hope to get only once every decade, or maybe only once every generation? Because that’s how special most observers believe Heyward and Posey are.
Heyward occupied right field for the Braves from Opening Day this season and hit .277/.393/.456 with 18 homers, 72 RBIs and 11 stolen bases in 142 games, playing through a thumb injury that diminished his power for about six weeks and eventually required a disabled list stint that kept him out of the All-Star Game after he had been elected as a starter.
Posey, who wasn’t called up until the end of May and in fact ranked as BA’s top prospect in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League this season, hit .305/.357/.505 with 18 homers and 67 RBIs in 108 games, including a ridiculous .417 with seven homers, 24 RBIs and a 1.067 OPS in July in just his second full month in the majors.
Heyward hit a tape-measure homer in his first at-bat on Opening Day, had 10 homers and 38 RBIs in his first two months before the thumb injury, and led major league rookies with 91 walks and a .393 on-base percentage that was the sixth-highest ever for a player who began a season younger than 21. His OBP and walks both ranked fourth in the NL overall.
Posey, who played at Florida State after his high school career, has only three years of catching experience yet is lauded for his skills and leadership of a pitching staff that led the majors with a 3.36 ERA.
Among Braves with at least 50 at-bats with runners in scoring position, Heyward’s .306 average in those situations was the team’s second-best, and his .927 OPS was the team leader.
Posey led the Giants with a .312 average and .923 OPS with runners in scoring position.
Both players became almost instantly beloved by their teams’ fans and managers, not only for their production on the field but for the way they conducted themselves on and off it.
“Young kid, 20 years old, full of energy and talent,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said early in the season, citing Heyward’s positive effect on clubhouse chemistry. “It really is energizing to have somebody like that for the veterans, to have someone come along and help immediately.”
Giants manager Bruce Bochy, for his part, said of Posey at the end of the season: “What this kid has done for us, the way he’s handled the staff, playing every day and being a catcher, I know how hard that is. It’s the toughest thing in ball. Your legs are worn down and yet he was able to find a way to get through it and handle the staff, and of course, hit a home run (in a playoff-clinching victory over San Diego).
“You talk about a catcher hitting cleanup, you think of a Johnny Bench. That’s who comes to mind. You just don’t see many of these guys.”
By the narrowest of margins, however, Baseball America selects Heyward as its Rookie of the Year for 2010, giving him the nod based on his age—he is almost two and a half years younger than Posey, even though he signed one year earlier—and the way he carried the Braves lineup for most of the season, especially when injuries struck such veterans as Chipper Jones.
A Long History
This isn’t the first time Heyward and Posey have gone head to head. Their schools met in the 2005 Georgia high school playoffs, with Henry County High’s Heyward and Lee County High’s Posey playing key roles. They both remember the confrontation, although they aren’t effusive in recalling the matchup.
“He was a senior,” Heyward said of their 2005 state championship series meeting, the first time he said he’d played against Posey. “It was my sophomore year. He played in East Cobb (Baseball), but I didn’t play with him there. He was on an older team.”
What does Heyward remember about Posey from back then? “He was a very versatile player,” he said. “He pitched and he hit well. He always hit well. He was a player you had to watch out for, that you had to be careful if you were playing against him.”
And that’s about it. Heyward is a no-nonsense sort of guy, a rookie who’s old school in believing that rookies should mostly be seen and not heard. It’s one of the many traits his teammates love about him, along with his huge ability.
So Heyward doesn’t go on at length with stories and anecdotes about Posey and their championship series, which, incidentally, Henry County won two games to one.
Posey’s memory of Heyward: “I remember him being really big already as a sophomore,” Posey told the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Giants planned to bring along Posey slowly this year, and if Bengie Molina hadn’t struggled early there’s a chance Posey would have spent even more of the season in Triple-A.
But Molina did struggle, and Posey was so good after his callup that the Giants traded Molina to the Rangers and turned over the catching duties to him.
A Rookie Of The Year Toss-Up
Both rookies struggled in the final weeks of the season, Heyward batting .173 with one extra-base hit and one RBI in the Braves’ final 14 games, and Posey hitting .143 in his final 11 games. However, half of Posey’s six hits in that stretch were home runs, and he hit eight homers in 28 games during September and October.
Posey went 1-for-11 in a four-game series against the Braves at Turner Field in August, and said he hoped he got the “first time back home” thing out of the way with that forgettable series against the Braves. He was solid in the Division Series, going 6-for-16, without any home runs or RBIs.
“I’ve seen Pose a lot on video and watching games, and he’s dynamite,” Cox said. “The kid is going to be a great hitter; he already is. And he’s got power, an arm that’s like a laser going to second base, and he stepped right in down the stretch, catching a really good pitching staff with no problems.
“That says a lot about a kid that’s out of south Georgia.”
Cox smiled and added, “I don’t know how we missed him.”
The Braves are known for scouting and drafting a bevy of talented players from Georgia, but they can’t draft them all. Besides, they’ve already got their own Georgia native behind the dish, Brian McCann.
What shouldn’t be overlooked, however, is Heyward’s season-long contributions with the Braves. He went just 2-for-16 in the Division Series, and got dropped to sixth in the lineup for the final game of the series, the first time he had hit lower than third in the order since the beginning of May. He batted second for most of the season (99 games) and third for 11 games.
And that alone illustrates how important Heyward was to the Braves all season long. In a team that was often patched together, Heyward was a constant as Atlanta returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Of the nine players the Braves sent out to start Game One of the Division Series, just three—Derek Lowe, McCann and Heyward—started on Opening Day.
“I would say this season—what a starting point. What a year to build on,” Heyward said. “Lot of experiences, lot of fun, a lot to take from. And I enjoyed it and most definitely don’t take anything for granted, from Opening Day till now.”
But even Cox, an unabashed Heyward supporter throughout his final season in the dugout, admitted it was a difficult call for Rookie of the Year.
“That’s for you guys to vote on,” he said. “Jason Heyward played almost every game. You have to consider his on-base percentage is almost .400, he’s got a lot of timely hits, and he’s a great right fielder that throws well and defends very well. And he’s been there all year.
“But I can make a case for (Posey) just as well.”
David O’Brien covers the Braves for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Andy Baggarly also contributed to this story.