It was about a week ago when Chipper Jones, mired in the worst start of his career, which followed one of the worst seasons of his career, phoned home.
Why? For advice. For support. Maybe just to hear the voice of his mother, figuring she wouldn’t say, “I just wrote a blog telling Bobby Cox to drop my good-for-nothing, .225-hitting son to eighth in the batting order, behind Melky.”
Actually, Lynne Jones didn’t say that. But she did make a suggestion.
“She said, ‘You need to bite the head off of a chicken,’” Jones said Tuesday.
“Yeah. My mom’s funny like that.”
These are things Jones can laugh about now. But another bad week or two and he might’ve been on PETA’s hit list.
The Braves have turned things around. They defeated Philadelphia for the second consecutive game Tuesday night, 7-3. They have gone from the novelty of being in first-place to start June (first time in five years) to holding a 1 1/2-game lead. They go into the series finale with a seven-game winning streak and a 22-8 record since a nine-game losing streak.
“What we’ve done in the last two to three weeks, it’s a testament to the character of this team,” said pitcher Tim Hudson, who allowed two runs in six innings, his ninth “quality” start in 11 outings. “We’re showing people what this team is all about.”
How did this happen? Several reasons. For starters, Troy Glaus morphed into Harmon Killebrew (he homered again Tuesday). Martin Prado and Jason Heyward did things that made up for what Jones, Brian McCann and Yunel Escobar weren’t doing. And starting pitching has been solid for the most part (starting with Hudson).
But if the Braves are looking for a positive sign about the immediate future, it might be this: the beginning of a turnaround by Chipper Jones. He is this team’s leader. He is the player who has had more big-game moments for this franchise than anybody else on the roster.
Once you get past the debate of whether Jones is breaking down or should be dropped in the order or even out of the lineup (not the suggestion here), this much seems clear: Pulling off a postseason run becomes infinitely more difficult without a productive Jones.
As recently as last Wednesday, Jones was hitting .219 with two homers. But he was 8-for-16 with four walks and seven RBIs in the past five games entering Tuesday. His contribution in this game was minimal — a first-inning walk that preceded Troy Glaus’s three-run homer. But it was Jones who opened this series with a bang: a two-run homer to jump-start the Braves to a 9-3 win.
“Big players show up for big games,” Eric Hinske said. “He set the tone.”
Jones admits the obvious: He was pressing.
“I’m expected to produce,” he said. “I wasn’t doing my part, and I was feeling kind of left out.”
He met with manager Bobby Cox to address the possibility of dropping in the batting order. “The last thing I wanted him to do was try to protect my feelings. If he felt the kid [Heyward] was best suited to hit there at that particular time, do it. Bobby said he thought things would turn around for me, and that’s about the time they did.”
Jones changed how he sets up at the plate. (Technical stuff: He was tucking his shoulder too much, which didn’t allow him to get his hands out quick enough on the swing.) But a little stress relief also helped.
No. He didn’t off a chicken. But he jokingly threatened to punch Hinske.
“One day he told me, ‘If I don’t get a hit today, I’m going to punch you in the face after the game,’” Hinske said, laughing. “I said, ‘Come on — please get a hit.’ And he did, in his first at-bat. He ran to first base and then looked back in the dugout at me.”
Jones: “Every once in a while I have to have something that motivates me. It started with [Peter] Moylan. He came up to me last year and said, ‘If you don’t get two hits tonight, I’m going to punch you in the face.’ I got three.”
Maybe he should just keep that going.
“I have,” Jones said. “I tell him every day now that I’m going to punch him.”
A relief to all chickens.