The Braves have said it’s a different team, different season, and that last year’s September collapse has no bearing on their current situation.
The words began to ring hollow during their recent slide, but Chipper Jones made a loud statement with his bat Sunday night. A two-outs-in-the-ninth statement.
Jones hit a three-run, walk-off homer against Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon to cap a five-run ninth inning that lifted the Braves to an improbable 8-7 win before a delirious crowd of 36,394 at Turner Field.
“It was certainly another one of those games I’ll never forget,” Jones said after his ninth walk-off homer and second this season, both against the rival Phillies. “Nothing beats that. That’s as good as it gets for a baseball player. To be able to walk off the field [with a win] especially in the situation we were in…”
The Braves trailed 7-1 after three innings and 7-3 after eight, before Martin Prado hit a two-out, bases-loaded single off the glove of third baseman Kevin Frandsen in the ninth.
Jones followed with his 428-foot homer to right-center field, another in the string of dramatic moments he’s produced in what’s been a magical ride this year for the 40-year-old switch-hitter, who is retiring after the season.
“No. 10 came through, man” said Michael Bourn, whose two-out, seven-pitch walk loaded the bases. “He’s the man of the hour.”
The Braves avoided a sweep and snapped a four-game losing skid with just their fifth win in 15 games.
“Chipper Jones, the guy plays like he’s 22,” Braves catcher David Ross said. “Everybody [in the dugout] was just like, ‘I can’t believe we won the game. That’s unbelievable. The guy is making stories that I’m going to tell my kids someday. He’s giving me ammo for the rest of my career. I’m going to tell all my buddies sitting around drinking a beer one day, I remember that [year] Chipper walked off Philly twice.”
Three hours before the game, Jones had said this when asked about putting the slumping offense on his back: “I’d be lying if I said two outs bases loaded, bottom of the ninth inning I want anybody else up there but me. That’s just the mentality that I’ve always had. And that’s never going to stop. I don’t care if I’m 40 or 60.”
Philadelphia scored five runs off Braves starter Paul Maholm in the first inning and cruised until the ninth. Maholm allowed a season-high seven runs and left without recording an out in the third inning in his worst game of the season. He allowed six hits and three walks with one strikeout in his briefest start of 2012.
Digging out of early holes is not something the Braves’ recently anemic offense has seemed capable of doing, but they reversed the trend Sunday. They trailed 7-1 after three innings and were 1-for-9 with runners in scoring position before Reed Johnson’s two-run single in the sixth.
But when the bottom of the ninth got going, those fans who stuck around were treated to a rally and another Jones moment they won’t soon forget.
After Boun’s walk loaded the bases, Prado — amid chants of “Let’s go, Pra-do” — came through with a hit that stoked the rally, drove in two runs and brought up Jones. As soon as he connected with Papelbon’s 1-1 fastball pitch, the place went crazy.
“He comes up big at times when you need somebody to come up big,” Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “Unbelievable. He is what he is. He’s going to be a Hall-of-Famer. Not too many guys can do that kind of stuff. Thank God that we got in that position to make him do that.”
Maholm had allowed as many runs as he gave up in his last six starts combined for the Chicago Cubs. He was 5-0 with a 1.02 ERA in six starts June 29 to July 29 before being traded to the Braves.
Maholm, who threw a nine-inning, 95-pitch complete game for the Braves against the Mets on Aug. 10, didn’t record his second out until his 38th pitch Sunday. The left-hander has a 6.32 ERA in his past three starts.
The biggest blows for the Phillies came with one out in the first inning: Ryan Howard hit a two-run double off the left-field wall and, three batters later, Erik Kratz poked a three-run opposite-field double to right.
“He just sprayed the ball around a little bit,” Gonzalez said. “Really, I think Howard hit the ball hard against him but everybody else dinked some balls — which I would take dinks also, the last five or six days. That first inning took a lot out of him. High pitch count, he just couldn’t recover from that. But again the rest of the guys did a terrific job keeping us right there.”
The last two runs charged to Maholm came after he left the game. Reliever Cristhian Martinez intentionally walked Michael Martinez to load the bases for pitcher Cole Hamels, whose fly ball sailed over Bourn and bounced over the center-field fence for a ground-rule double and 7-1 lead.
Five Braves relievers gave up only two more hits over seven innings. Peter Moylan (1-0) got the win after inducing a groundout in the ninth inning of his second appearance since spending nearly a full season rehabbing from shoulder surgery.
The latest examples of the Braves’ recent scoring problems could be found in the first two innings. With two runners in scoring position in the first, Hamels struck out Freddie Freeman and Ross.
After scoring a run on consecutive doubles by Jason Heyward and Johnson to start the second, the Braves got nothing more in the inning as Hamels retired the next three batters on two groundouts and a strikeout of Maholm.
Until the hits by Prado and Jones in the ninth, the Braves had been 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position in the series. But those timely hits were enough to give the Braves a much-needed win.
“I go out there expecting to win every day,” Jones said. “But for whatever reason it hadn’t been happening for us lately. And I’m glad I got an opportunity there in the ninth, an opportunity to win the ball game and came through. It was a huge win for a club that was a little down in the dumps from the way we’ve been playing lately.”