HOUSTON – When Chipper Jones hit a two-run homer in the third inning Tuesday, after going directly from the disabled list into the lineup without a rehab assignment, Braves veteran Eric Hinske went to the top step and shouted to him as Jones rounded the bases, “It can’t be that easy!”
Hinske and teammates were thrilled and so were Jones’ parents. They rose from their seats behind the visiter’s dugout at Minute Maid Park and cheered as their son, two weeks before his 40th birthday and 15 days since his sixth knee surgery, rounded the bases on his 455th home run to give the Braves a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in their first win of the season.
“To see them go out of their seat … nice,” said Jones, smiling as he watched the replay again on a clubhouse TV Wednesday afternoon.
A lot of other folks around Braves Nation likely went out of their seats at the same time as Jones hit the biggest homer of the young season for a lineup that was mostly moribund before he rejoined.
The Braves were 0-4 without him and 1-0 with Jones after a 6-4 win over the Houston Astros that evened the series at a game apiece.
“I’m glad we didn’t make him go on that rehab assignment,” said manager Fredi Gonzalez, who had asked Jones on Monday if he’d consider going on a three-game rehab assignment this week and join the Braves for Friday’s home opener.
Jones told Gonzalez he didn’t want to do that, and told reporters on Tuesday that a couple of games in the minors would be a waste of time.
Then he put his bat – and glove – where his mouth was.
“I think he won the game for us almost by himself,” Gonzalez said.
After playing all nine innings in his first game in three weeks, Jones was back in the lineup Wednesday. He walked a little gingerly and eased himself on the carpeted clubhouse floor to do something no one could remember seeing him do before in any clubhouse. He began stretching.
Asked how he felt, Jones smiled and said, “I’ve felt better, put it that way. When’s the last time you ever saw me stretching in the clubhouse. I can tell you: You never have seen it.”
There was no easing into game action Tuesday for Jones, who had to react quickly when former Braves center fielder Jordan Schafer bunted the first pitch from Tommy Hanson. Jones pulled off one of the bare-handed pickup-and-throw plays he’s made hundreds of times, executing it flawlessly to throw out Schafer.
“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.
Schafer, who had three hits and stole three bases, chatted with Jones the first time he reached 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.”
Jones had only 25 at-bats in spring training and didn’t play after March 20. He torn meniscus in his left knee on the morning of a previously scheduled news conference to announce he’d retire after the 2012 season, and had arthroscopic surgery March 26.
Other than taking about 15 swings against Braves pitcher Randall Delgado in a Friday workout at New York, Jones didn’t face any live pitching since March 20 before stepping into the batter’s box Tuesday. Batting sixth, he singled off Kyle Weiland in the second inning, then homered off the right-hander in the third inning.
Jones had a .400 career average in 39 games at Minute Maid Park with nine homers, 33 RBI, .474 OBP and 1.222 OPS.
“It was just fun to get back in there, contribute, and try to be somewhat of a calming influence,” he said.
Hanson said he did exactly that.
“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.”