Chipper Jones said he will return to play for the Braves in 2012, ending speculation that the 39-year-old third baseman might retire after this season and walk away with a year left on his contract.
“I’m playing next year,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. “I still feel like I can go out there and play a good third base and be a threat, at least, at the plate. I’m having a good defensive year, and the [batting] average is on the rise.”
Two hours later, he hit a home run for the second night in a row to give him 12 this season.
Jones is owed $14 million in 2012 in the final year of a three-year, $42 million contract extension, which also includes a $9 million option for 2013 that becomes automatic if he plays in 123 games next season or averages 127 games this season and next.
He has hit .275 with 26 doubles, 12 homers, 56 RBIs and a .349 on-base percentage in 93 games, including a home run off San Francisco ace Tim Lincecum on Thursday in a 1-0 win and another homer Friday off Arizona’s Daniel Hudson in a 4-2 win.
Jones hasn’t ruled out playing in 2013, but will probably wait until next season to decide.
“That’s going to be a big decision because you’ve got to weigh whether it’s worth it to be away from home for eight months,” he said. “You’ve got to weigh whether you can tolerate the amount of pain that you deal with on a daily basis, and then how much you’re helping the team and how much possibly the money that’s paid to you can be used to better the ballclub in other areas.
“I’m not really ready to make that  decision yet. We sit here right now and I feel good, I’m being productive, I’m having fun, we’re winning. I like to think that if I can keep my knees and my leg muscles intact for any period of time, that I can still put together a pretty good season. But even if I do that [in 2012], I may just say I’m ready to do something else.”
For next season, he’s all in. It’ll be the 19th season for Jones, who will be 40 on April 24. Braves general manager Frank Wren said he had expected Jones would return in 2012.
“He’s signed, and he’s a key part of our team,” Wren said. “We also recognize that he’s 39, and we can’t push him too hard. We’ve made a concentrated effort not to do that.”
Teammate David Ross was not surprised Jones would be back.
“It’s 100 percent, no doubt in my mind I would come back” if he were in Jones’ position, Ross said. “He’s got nothing left to prove. He’s a Hall of Famer whether he hits .200 next year. I think he has fun when he’s playing well, like we all do.
“As soon as he’s sitting at home while we’re still playing, he’s thinking, ‘I’ve still got it, I can still do it.’ Which we know he can.”
Injuries limited Jones to 95 games in 2010, when he had season-ending surgery for a torn ACL in his left knee in August. He defied skeptics by making it back for the start of spring training.
He tore cartilage in his right knee early this season and played through the injury for two months before arthroscopic surgery July 9. He injured his right quadriceps in his first game back and was limited to two pinch-hit appearances in the next 10 days.
Through it all, he has been productive recently, batting .356 with six doubles, five homers and 13 RBI in 23 games since July 1, including .419 with three homers and seven RBIs in his past nine games. Jones’ .387 average with runners in scoring position was the National League’s second-highest before Friday.
“Now that the legs are starting to get healthy, you’re starting to see some more extra-base hits,” said Jones, who also doubled off Lincecum on Thursday. “If I end the season with 50-plus extra-base hits, that’s pretty good. But the bottom line is, be productive and go out there and produce runs.”
His home run Friday was the 448th of his career, 35th on the all-time list. He’s one homer behind Jeff Bagwell and four behind Carl Yastrzemski.
“I dare say I don’t think I’m going to scare 3,000 [hits] or 500 [homers],” said Jones, who has 2,582 hits. “But whatever my legacy is, it’s probably already been written. So nothing I do through the end of this year and next year is going to really change that, I hope. I guess you could probably do some damage to it, but I don’t see that happening. Especially the way I feel right now
“It’s coming. I feel like I was in the .240s a few weeks ago, and I’m up in the .270s now and certainly feel like I can get up in the .280s, .290s, which is pretty good.”
If he returned to play in 2013, Jones’ $9 million option has escalators that would increase his 2013 salary based on number of games played in 2012: to $10 million if he played in 128 games, $11 million if he played in 133, $12 million if he played in 138, and $13 million if he played in 140.
His career average slipped to .304 from .306 since the beginning of the season, and his OBP from .405 to .403. It’s possible those could dip below .300 and .400 with a bad season in 2012.
“I take a lot of pride in those numbers,” he said. “Those are awfully big numbers over an 18-year career. But that’s not what drives me. I want to punctuate my career helping these guys win a championship.”