HOUSTON – After he came off the disabled list Tuesday afternoon, Chipper Jones said the Braves needed someone to step up and get a big hit or pitch a great game to get the team going.
Then he took care of it himself.
Jones had two hits including a two-run homer that put the Braves ahead to stay in a 6-4 win against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park, their first win in five games.
“It was just fun to get back in there, contribute, and try to be somewhat of a calming influence,” said Jones, whose 455th career homer pushed the lead to 3-1 with two out in the third inning.
Tommy Hanson (1-1) had eight strikeouts in five innings and rookie shortstop Tyler Pastornicky hit his first major league home run. The Braves got homers from their oldest (Jones) and youngest, Pastornicky, nearly 18 years his junior.
“It was amazing to see what he did today,” Hanson said of Jones.
The creaky veteran started the game by fielding Jordan Schafer’s bunt barehanded and throwing out the ex-Brave, and Jones ended the game by fielding a hot grounder down the line and throwing across the field to nail Chris Snyder at first.
“I’m glad we didn’t make him go on that rehab assignment,” cracked Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez, in the mood to joke after a game for the first time this season. “I think he won our game singlehandedly, really, with the home run, base hit, couple of nice plays defensively.”
“I think today he made a statement that spring training is too long. Next year maybe we can show up the 20th of March, play 10 games and then go get ‘em. But the stuff he does, nobody else could do. For me, he won the game for us almost by himself.”
Rehab assignment? Old Battleaxe don’t need no stinking rehab assignment.
Just don’t ask him if his return sparked the team.
“I’m not going to say that I was the spark,” Jones said. “Obviously the two-run homer was a big lift, but I’d much rather be a calming influence. Have them look down there, see me, and know that I’m going to put up some good at-bats and hopefully make the play if it’s hit to me. If they feed off that, great. But my nickname is not Sparky.”
The Astros scored two runs in the seventh to cut a three-run lead to 5-4, but pinch hitter Eric Hinske’s two-out single restored some cushion for the Braves. Relievers Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel worked an inning apiece to preserve the win, Kimbrel recording his first save after giving up a hit and walk, same as Venters. Both showed some rust from the lack of first-week activity.
Two weeks before his 40th birthday and 15 days after arthroscopic knee surgery – his sixth knee operation — Jones passed on a minor-league rehab assignment and jumped back into the major-league fray as if it was no big thing.
“He’s there and he’s talking to us, too,” Hanson said. “He’s trying to keep us in the game. There’s a lot of stuff you can learn from him. Even me as a pitcher, the stuff he says before the inning and in the dugout, he’s huge for everybody here.”
Jones singled his first time up in the second inning, then homered off right-hander Kyle Weiland in the third inning. Jones’ homer immediately followed an RBI double by Dan Uggla and put the Braves ahead 3-1.
Jones, who plans to retire after the 2012 season, has a .400 career average at Minute Maid Park with nine homers and 33 RBIs in 39 games. His parents, who live on his Texas ranch much of the year, usually come to see him play in Houston and sat behind the dugout Tuesday.
He will have one more game at Minute Maid on Wednesday night, when the Braves try to salvage a 2-4 trip and series win after getting swept in three games at New York and blowing a 3-0 lead in Monday’s series-opening loss to the Astros.
“Nobody’s panicking,” Hinske said before the game. “This is not the way we wanted to start, for sure. We lost the first four games. But there are a whole lot of games left. You just can’t panic. You just go out there and play your game and try to win, that’s all you can do. There’s no magic formula. Just got to start hitting, got to start pitching.”
The Braves did more of each Tuesday than they have previously this season, and snapped a nine-game losing skid going back to September.
Hanson (1-1) allowed six hits, two runs and three walks in five innings to continue his success against the Astros and affinity for their ballpark. He’s 4-0 with a 1.29 ERA in six starts against the Astros, with 50 strikeouts and eight walks in 42 innings. In four starts at Minute Maid, he’s 2-0 with a 1.08 ERA.
Hanson has never allowed more than two runs against the Astros.
They got got a run in the second after a leadoff walk by Carlos Lee, and they loaded the bases with one out in the fifth after consecutive singles to start the inning and an intentional walk to Lee with one out. With the bases loaded, Hanson struck out Brian Bogusevic and Chris Johnson.
“My fastball command [stunk],” Hanson said. “I went out there and battled and threw what I had to. I need to work on my fastball command.”
Jones said: “He struggled with command, and when he didn’t make good pitches they hit them. A lot of balls fell in. Not a lot of balls hit real hard. So he can take something out of that. And when when he got in a pinch and we needed a strikeout, he got it. Thwarted any big rallies. We stayed away from any multi-run innings.”
Any thought of easing into his first game vanished for Jones with the bunt by Schafer on Hanson’s first pitch of the night.
“I knew he was going to come at me at some point tonight, but it’s my job to take that element away from guys if the bunt is a big part of their arsenal,” Jones said. “I was honestly thinking about letting it go and then I saw it curve away from the line. I said, I better get this over there in a hurry. And [first baseman] Freddie [Freeman] gave me a good stretch.”
Schafer, who had three hits and stole three bases, chatted once with Jones after reaching third.
“He said, ‘Man, right out of the gate barehand?’” Jones said, smiling. “I was like, that’s my job, baby. It’s my job to take it away from you. I see you didn’t come back down there the rest of the night.”