HOUSTON – It didn’t matter that he had barely faced any live pitching in 2-1/2 weeks, had only 25 at-bats in spring training and was nearly 40 years old and coming back from knee surgery without benefit of an injury-rehab assignment.
The Braves were just glad to have Chipper Jones back in the lineup Tuesday night against Houston.
“He’s our guy,” said Braves veteran Eric Hinske. “Just that stability for him to be able to play, knowing he’s available at least. When he’s not here it’s a definite hole for us. He’s Chipper Jones, he’s one of the best, and it’s going to be huge for us.”
Then Jones demonstrated how: He singled in his first plate appearance in the second inning and hit a two-run, two-out homer in the third inning to put the Braves ahead 3-1 Tuesday at Minute Maid Park.
The third baseman also made a nifty bare-handed play to thwart a bunt attempt by ex-Brave Jordan Schafter to start the Astros’ first inning.
Jones was activated from the 15-day disabled list earlier in the day and outfielder Jose Constanza was optioned to Triple-A Gwinnett. Jones batted sixth in the order, something the longtime No. 3 hitter did six times in 2011.
He had athroscopic knee surgery March 26 and was activated the first day he was eligible to come off the DL. He told manager Fredi Gonzalez and general manager Frank Wren that he preferred not to go on a minor-league rehab assignment.
“I’m real concerned with my timing at the plate,” Jones said Tuesday, few hours before making that notion look silly in his first two plate appearances. “It’s probably not going to be there at the beginning. But going out and getting some at-bats in the minor leagues isn’t going to accelerate the process.
“I need to come up here and if I’m physically healthy, throw me in the lineup and let’s get after it.”
The Braves’ 0-4 start — their first since they went 0-10 to begin the 1988 season — had created a bit more urgeny for Jones to return, and he hoped he could help stabilize an offense that had been anemic through four games against the New York Mets and Houston.
Atlanta had a league-worst .165 average and 10 runs total before Tuesday. Jones said it would be difficult for him to take any games off until the Braves start winning.
“It seems like when the ball gets rolling downhill it’s hard to stop,” he said. “But it’s just going to take somebody stepping up and throwing a great game on the mound, or somebody getting a big base hit late in a game to propel us to victory, and things will start rolling after that.”
Jones said losses like Monday’s, when the Braves gave up three unearned runs to blow a 3-0 lead, reminded him in one way of the Braves’ 10-20 collapse that ended last season.
“It’s kind of that feel that we had last September where we’d play good baseball and then we’d have one inning that would just break out back and kill us,” he said. “This team isn’t going anywhere unless we get over that – right now.” [He raised his voice to emphasize the last two words].
“Like I said, it’s just going to take somebody stepping up in this clubhouse to be able to get things back on track.”
Before Tuesday, Jones had .397 average at Minute Maid Park with eight homers, 31 RBIs and a 1.207 OPS in 38 games.