(Updated: 11:31 p.m.)
When the Braves returned home Friday night, they didn’t have the usual look of a team just one game out of first place.
Their egos: dented from being swept in a four-game series for the first time in three years. Chipper Jones’ left calf: a blistered-and-blood-engorged mess from taking a missile of a grounder just above the ankle. Freddie Freeman: still unsure whether to go with the new prescription goggles or new contacts for the dry eyes that caused blurry vision. Brian McCann and Matt Diaz: fluish (although Diaz strangely felt comforted that he was now coughing up “red and green” mucus).
But near the end of May, despite a five-game losing streak, the arrow still generally points north for a team that played 29 of its first 46 games on the road — except for one significant area. They’re not giving much of an impression they can win without Chipper Jones.
This is an important issue, and not because Jones missed the entire four-game series in Cincinnati, and the Braves were swept. Even before his injury and at a time when seemingly everybody else in the lineup was hitting, the team still struggled without Jones.
Jones went on the disabled list following Friday’s 7-4 loss to Washington. He still has significant pain in his left calf and the Braves decided it wasn’t worth it to force him back into the lineup this weekend. But this isn’t meant to be an examination of whether he is too brittle at the age of 40. What happened to him at Tampa Bay last week could’ve happened to a 20-year-old: He took a B.J. Upton ground ball off his calf and the leg swelled and mutated. (Jones said, “I’ve never been hit that hard, ever,” and he was told if his ankle area had not had not been “cushioned” by socks and his shoe, the grounder would’ve broken a bone.)
The issue is whether the Braves are too dependent on one player to be successful. They’ve now played 47 games. They’re 21-8 when Jones has started or made at least one plate appearance and 5-13 when he hasn’t played at all. Discounting late-game appearances, the Braves are 19-5 (.792) when Jones starts and 7-16 (.304) when he doesn’t.
A winning percentage drop-off without Jones would be expected. Just not 488 points.
Maybe the Braves are better equipped to manufacture runs with Michael Bourn’s speed at the top of the batting order. Maybe hitting coach Greg Walker has improved the club’s situational hitting. But the contrasting won-loss records are alarming, particularly since Jones is going to be out of the lineup every few games even when he’s “healthy,” just to protect his knees.
“When he comes back, I don’t think he’s going to miss six or seven games in a row again,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said.
But just in case, does the team still need to prove it can win without Jones?
“Yes. But I don’t think he’s going to miss six or seven in a row again,” Gonzalez said. “If he misses six, seven in a row, we’re in trouble. But any team is going to have a hard time surviving when a guy in the middle of their lineup misses [a number of] games. The Phillies, without [Ryan] Howard and [Chase] Utley, they’re kind of treading water.”
Players don’t seem overly concerned about the situation, although Bourn said, “You never want to depend on one guy, but Chipper is who he is, and we’re going to miss him when he’s not in there. After this year, you’re going to have to get used to it because he’s not going to be here.”
Jones is having a strong season. He is third on the club in batting average (.307) and RBIs (24). He believes his presence brings “a calming influence” to others.
But, he said, “If you’re asking me whether guys go up to the plate and think, ‘Chipper’s not in the game so I’ve got to step up,’ I don’t think that’s the case. I just think what’s happened lately is I’ve missed quite a few games, and some guys have kind of fallen out out of the trees that they were in offensively.”
He sat out Friday. He may be out again Saturday. The Braves need to start figuring out how to win without him.
By Jeff Schultz