(Sports Network) - With the Atlanta Braves owning a 15-game lead atop the NL East, the last thing the club wanted was to lose a key player for an extended period of time.
The Braves, though, will be without Jason Heyward for perhaps the rest of the regular season. They'll try to shake off that blow on Thursday night in the opener of a four-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Heyward is expected to miss 4-to-6 weeks after suffering a fractured jaw in Wednesday's 4-1 win over the New York Mets. He was hit by a pitch from the Mets' Jon Niese in the sixth inning, falling to the ground before getting assisted by manager Fredi Gonzalez and trainer Jeff Porter.
Heyward did walk off the field with help from Porter and was taken to a local hospital for X-rays.
"He never lost consciousness," Gonzalez said. "He was talking the whole time when he got hit with the ball. Before they took him to the hospital, he popped his head into the dugout and said 'bye' to some of the guys."
The left-hander, scheduled to undergo surgery on Thursday, was hitting .345 since moving into the leadoff spot on July 28. In 95 games this year, Heyward was hitting .253 with 13 homers and 37 RBI, having also missed time after undergoing an emergency appendectomy in late April.
It was the latest blow for the Braves, who saw outfielder Justin Upton sit out a second straight game due to an upper back strain. He is hopeful to play in this opener and is hitting .333 with eight homers and 23 RBI over his last 32 games.
Atlanta is also without second baseman Dan Uggla, who is on the disabled list after undergoing Lasik surgery to correct his vision.
But as one player exits, another returns for the Braves. Left-hander Paul Maholm is slated to make his first start in just over a month after being sidelined with a bruised left wrist.
Maholm suffered the injury on July 10 at Miami and it forced him out of a start at the Chicago White Sox on July 20 after just three innings. The 31- year-old lost his final three appearances before going on the DL and allowed just one run on four hits and zero walks in a rehab start on Saturday night with Class-A Rome.
"It's been a month. Like I said early on, I'm not a very good DL patient," Maholm told Atlanta's website. "I'm just looking forward to just getting back in there and competing, and obviously we've been playing well. So obviously it's been fun to watch, but it's going to be better to be a part of it."
Maholm is 9-9 with a 4.41 earned run average in 20 starts this year and 4-7 lifetime versus the Cardinals with a 4.06 ERA in 18 meetings.
He'll look to slow down contending St. Louis, which has won four of five and trails Pittsburgh by a game for first place in the NL Central. The Cards took the rubber match of a three-game set with Milwaukee on Wednesday, 8-6.
Carlos Beltran, Allen Craig and Matt Holliday all homered.
"That was a big win," said Cardinals manager Mike Matheny. "That team kept coming, and fortunately we kept doing what we needed to do and got enough room. That was a tough game."
Joe Kelly gets the call for Matheny's club tonight and has been a huge spark since joining the rotation on July 6. He is 4-0 with a 2.23 ERA in seven starts and picked up a victory at the Chicago Cubs on Saturday, hurling six scoreless innings of four-hit ball with three walks and six strikeouts.
The 25-year-old righty is 4-3 with a 3.01 ERA in 29 games this year, including eight starts, and has not lost since June 5.
"When he goes out there with that kind of confidence, it just transfers over to everybody else. And he's getting better," Matheny said of Kelly.
Kelly faced the Braves for the first time in his career on July 27 with a start in Atlanta. He scattered seven hits and three walks over 6 1/3 scoreless frames, but did not factor into a 2-0 loss.
The Braves swept that three-game set and have won eight of the past nine meetings overall.