LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – Some Braves fans (and probably team officials) held their collective breath when Chipper Jones slid into second base to break up a double play in the fourth inning Sunday in his first game since knee surgery.
Not to worry. The 38-year-old third baseman trotted off, stayed in for one more at-bat, and at the end of the day had passed another test in his comeback.
“Couldn’t be happier,” Jones said after going 1-for-3 with a single during a 5-4 loss against the New York Mets. “Just glad to be playing again.”
Serving as designated hitter in the Braves’ Grapefruit League home opener, lined a first-pitch hit to left field off Oliver Perez in his second of three plate appearances before an appreciative crowd of 7,040 at Champion Stadium.
“I thought it was a great day,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said of Jones’ first game back. “He got three at-bats, ran the bases, got a hit from the right side off a lefty, slid at second breaking up a double play…. [The slide] surprised me.”
Gonzalez said Jones would let him know when he’s ready to play next, at DH or third base. Jones plans to play third base later this week, but first wanted to get some at-bats as a DH. The Braves will use the DH all this week.
Jones got the day’s biggest cheers each time he was introduced.
“You could’ve timed me with a sun dial getting down there,” he joked of his breakup slide. “I was measuring my steps. I was less concerned about the fielder than I was about how I hit the ground and where second base was.
“Once the regular season starts it’ll just be, go after him. Right there it was, don’t blow out [the knee] in the first game back… I was trying to hit the ground without breaking something.”
He’s coming back from his second ACL surgery on his left knee, the previous operation for a spring training injury 17 years ago when he was a rookie.
Jones did only one sliding drill before Sunday, and admitted his knee didn’t feel great afterward. He said Sunday morning that sliding head-first would be easier on the knee, “but if you’ve got to break up a double play, you’ve got to break up a double play. If I don’t get there in time, I’ll be peeling off, though.”
He didn’t peel off when it came time to test it a few hours later. Freddie Freeman hit a one-out grounder to first baseman Ike Davis, who threw to shortstop Ruben Tejada to start a potential double play. Jones broke up the play with a hook slide on his left leg.
Perez walked the next three batters before Shawn Bowman’s two-run single capped a three-run inning for a 4-0 Braves lead.
“Sliding didn’t feel too good, but I suppose it’ll get better as I continue to do it,” Jones said. “I was happy. Honestly, I just wanted to go out and make contact three times, then take it to the house. Unfortunately, didn’t happen the first at-bat [strikeout looking].
“But good at-bat the second at-bat, and I felt good about my third at-bat [broken-bat flyout to right field]. Ball just got in on me a little bit; I made a good pass on it.”
He explained why the knee hurts to slide.
“Sometimes if I’ve been on it for a while, if I’ve been using it, it stiffens up,” he said. “So actually having to tuck that leg under, you know, hurts. Obviously the impact of all your weight coming down on it, hitting the ground, doesn’t feel great either.
“That’s why [Sunday] it was just kind of, I’m going to go down here and I’m going to calculate my steps and I’m just going to get a nice, pretty slide” — he laughed — “and hopefully it works out.”
He said he has to get to the point where he doesn’t think about the knee when he’s playing defense or sliding. Jones had fluid buildup in the knee one day last week, but it was mostly cleared up the following day and he didn’t have to get it drained.
“I just need to get to the point where I’m not Andre Dawson, where I have to drain it every day when I come to the park,” he said, adding that while he’s not had to have his knee drained yet this spring, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s on the horizon.”