LAWRENCEVILLE, GA. -- Jason Heyward took a major step -- and eight big swings -- toward getting back to Atlanta.
"It felt good to be back out there. It felt weird to be back out there," said Heyward following his first rehab game with the Triple-A Gwinnett Braves on Thursday afternoon at Coolray Field. "Literally sitting down for two weeks is not the ideal thing to do during the season, but I'm just glad to get the process started and get some at-bats, get around baseball again, be involved in the game."
Wearing No. 15, Heyward went 0-for-5 with a walk and three strikeouts while batting second and serving as designated hitter in the Gwinnett's series finale against the Pawtucket Red Sox, a rare 10:35 a.m. start for Belk Education Day.
But the results on this day were secondary.
Of primary importance for Heyward was getting back on his feet and getting his feet inside a batter's box for the first time since undergoing an emergency appendectomy on April 22 in Colorado. He was placed on the disabled list the next day.
Thursday continued a progression of getting healthy that started last week with walking, then light running, then taking dry swings and hitting off a tee in the batting cage over the weekend, then taking live batting practice with Gwinnett on Wednesday, and now a rehab game Thursday.
"Basically you're just trying to get accustomed to seeing the ball again," said Heyward, who was hitting .121 (7-for-58) with two homers, five RBIs, eight runs scored and a pair of doubles at the time of his injury and hasn't suited up since April 20 vs. the Pirates.
"It's kind of Spring Training again as far as not having had any at-bats in a while. So from at-bat to at-bat, you just want to see more pitches. You want to have better timing and get closer and closer to being able to react. I did feel better at-bat to at-bat."
Thursday, Heyward saw a mixed bag of pitchers, facing a knuckleballer in 28-year-old Steven Wright, who came into the game with a 1-1 record and a 1.69 ERA, in his first three at-bats, then a hard-throwing righty in Chris Carpenter, and finally a fireballing lefty in Ryan Rowland-Smith.
While knuckleballers can mess with a hitter's timing, Heyward took facing Wright in a positive light.
"We've got [Toronto pitcher R.A.] Dickey, probably in two weeks, either in Toronto or here in Atlanta. So it's not a bad thing to see," Heyward said. "But a 10:30 game -- probably not the ideal way to come back."
Heyward struck out twice against Carpenter, swinging in the first -- taking a hearty cut on a 2-2 fastball on the outside edge -- and looking in the fourth. In between, he hit a soft grounder to second base in the second inning. While he was thrown out, 4-1, on the play, he erased any question about his ability to run by going hard out of the box and making the play close at first, nearly beating Wright to the bag.
In the sixth inning against Carpenter, Heyward struck out swinging on a 1-2 high fastball, but he began to look more at home at the plate.
In Heyward's final at-bats, facing the hard-throwing former Seattle Mariners reliever Rowland-Smith, he walked on four pitches in the eighth, then went first to third with ease on a single by left fielder Alden Carrithers, who had a career game batting behind Heyward, going 3-for-3 and reaching base five times. In the ninth, Heyward fouled out against Rowland-Smith to end the game.
Heyward will accompany the G-Braves to Scranton, Pa., for their weekend series with the Scranton/Wilkes Barre Railriders, expecting to DH again on Friday and hopefully to get back to playing the outfield over the weekend.
Heyward has not set a timetable for a return to Atlanta, preferring to play things by ear.
"I've never come back from having this before. So we'll see," Heyward said. "It's just a feel thing, as far as what becomes natural -- instinct, instinct, instinct.
"It's not going to be instant, because I was literally sitting down for like eight or nine days without any option to do anything physical," he added. "So it's good to be back at it and start this process again. I can get as much work and time as I need right here to get back to normal."
Jonathan Cooper is a contributor to MLB.com.