The Braves are playing their best stretch of baseball in more than three years. Chipper Jones, the player who usually helps get them there, is playing his worst.
If you’re Jones, the season has been a mixed blessing. He spoke two weeks ago about how much he enjoyed being part of a playoff race again. But two weeks ago, he wasn’t in a stretch of one hit in nine games. Two weeks ago, he wasn’t so clearly on pace to put up some of his least productive offensive numbers since his rookie season — this despite actually leading the team in games played — and openly speaking about how physically and mentally worn down he felt.
“I can sit here and tell you all of the things I’ve done wrong this whole year [mechanically], and the list is long and boring,” Jones said Tuesday. “But the bottom line is, you get a pitch to hit pretty much every at-bat, and if you don’t do your damage with that one pitch, you just do your best to hang on the rest of the at-bat. We are trained to not miss those mistakes. Right now, and for about the last month, I’ve done as good a job as I can to miss every mistake that they make. Right now, a moral victory for me is a walk.”
When reminded that he has been drawing his share of walks, Jones: “I know. That’s kept me sane. But I’m tired, I’m beat up and my mechanics are not good — and all of those things have contributed to this slump.”
These are not words you want to hear in a pennant race. Jones is the team’s best player — when he’s on. He suspects he would benefit from a day off here and there, but he knows that isn’t feasible. Injuries have thinned the bench. Sitting out would send the wrong message to teammates and fans. It wouldn’t thrill the manager. Also, there’s a pennant race going on.
“The last couple of years, when we were out of it, you wouldn’t have trouble asking [for a day off],” he said. “But right now, you definitely don’t want to ask for one. And it could be the one game that determines whether or not we go to the playoffs.”
But he’s running on fumes. He went 0-for-4 with a walk in Tuesday’s game against San Diego. He’s 1-for-28 in the past nine games. He’s hitting .261 since June. His season average of .281 hardly looks like a death knell. But it’s a significant drop from the .324, .337 and .364 averages his past three seasons, and his career average of .310. He has hit lower only twice — .248 in an injury-plagued 2004 and .265 in his rookie season (1995). He’s also pacing for a career-low 20 home runs. Extra-base hits and slugging percentage — also way down.
What’s of greater concern, the drop in power or average? “The average,” he said. “I’ve never considered myself a power hitter. I consider myself a tough out.”
He has spoken to his father for advice. He worked in the cage again Tuesday with Terry Pendleton. He’s trying to get his hands back into his swing. He has been playing through ailments, notably a wrist injury, and has managed to stay off the disabled list. But in a strange way, he thinks that has worked against him.
“I was thinking the other day, ‘How come whenever I come off the disabled list, I get hot?’” he said. “I think it’s because I feel fresh.”
But a day off? Cox said roster injuries have prevented that.
Then Cox added: “You sign on, you play.”
Jones: “Bobby’s of the old-school belief that if you’re healthy, it’s your job to play. I tend to agree with him 99, 98 percent of the time. When you’re in your 20s and early 30s, yeah, you should play. But as you get older, the grind of this lifestyle after 20 years of doing it, does take its toll.”
He’ll get his rest in October. Until then, he’ll hope for more than the moral victory of a walk.