(UPDATED: 9:45 p.m.)
They have given away bobbleheads of the old man. They have given away posters. I’m not sure what else the Braves can do to commemorate what Chipper Jones has meant to this franchise, except maybe provide a DVD of his ninth inning at-bat to the thousands of fans who weren’t around for the finish Sunday night.
What is it about these situations? Ninth inning. Men on base. Two outs. Not many athletes thrive when given an opportunity to turn desperation into miracle, but Jones is one and he proved it again. As he said earlier Sunday, “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.”
Staying with the age theme, Jones made 40 look like 20, just when the Braves were looking 60. He slammed a two-out, three-run homer off Philadelphia closer Jonathan Papelbon to cap a five-run ninth inning, giving the Braves an improbable 8-7 win over the Phillies at Turner Field.
The ending took place before the several thousand fans, not to be confused with the thousands who had streamed for the exits over the previous few innings, when the Braves fell behind 7-1 and looked destined for their 11th loss in 15 games and possible postseason oblivion (again).
Was this a gong to signal a 180 in this team’s fortunes? Or was it just a loud diversion from a season that has looked to be going up in flames?
“Technically I say they’re all must-wins,” Jones said afterward. “That’s the way I go about it. That’s my mentality. I go out there expecting to win every day. 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.”
There’s no way to know if what Jones did is going to change the course of the Braves’ season. It’s only one game of 162. It came at the end of a series that the Braves lost, in a stretch that has seen them slide further back in the National League East and clinging to wild card hopes.
But if the Braves do manage to make something of this season, remember what Chipper Jones did on Sept. 2.
“Unbelievable,” manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “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.”
The Braves trailed 5-0 in the first, 7-1 in the third and 7-3 in the ninth. They had two on and two outs when somebody pulled a needle out of a voodoo doll. Michael Bourn walked to load the bases, Martin Prado doubled past the glove of Phillies third baseman Kevin Frandsen to bring home two runs, and then led brought up Jones, who crushed a 1-1 pitch from Papelbon.
Asked if he was thinking then that he could end the game with one swing, he said: “I was just trying to center the fastball. I didn’t really at that point care where it went because I knew if I got [a hit] and hit it hard somewhere that Prado would score, tie the game and it’s a whole new ball game. … Sometimes things happen. It was certainly another one of those games I’ll never forget.”
When Jones arrived at home plate after circling the bases, he was met with the traditional dirt shower from teammates. There’s a welcome switch. For the most part, dirt has been thrown on the whole team of late — in an entirely different context.
The Braves will try to milk this celebration for as long as possible. There hasn’t been a lot of them. When Jones stepped to the plate, even he was struggling in key situations: 1 for 11 with runners in scoring position for a team that had entered the night 15 for 106 (.142) during a miserable 4-10 stretch. The Braves had been circling the drain.
Consider the backdrop before Jones’ heroics. The Braves’ starting pitcher, Paul Maholm, allowed five runs in the first inning. By the time somebody realized two innings later this wouldn’t be short-term disaster and went out to rescue him, they needed a dustpan and broom.
The offense has been so head-slapping bad that Gonzalez benched two struggling starters (Brian McCann and Dan Uggla) and fielded his 89th different batting order, because, as he observed: “What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over again and coming out with the same conclusion? (Close enough.)
One area the Braves wanted to improve in this season was situational hitting. Under new hitting coaches Greg Walker and Scott Fletcher, they had done that for the first few months of the season. But their hitting has been on a steady decline (.264 in June, .248 in July, .232 in August) and their proficiency with runners in scoring position has been worse than ever. The .142 average with runners in scoring position was a staggering 106 points less than before the 4-10 stretch (.248).
Improvement can’t compensate for grease fires like Maholm’s (2 innings, 7 runs, 6 hits, 3 walks but no lost major organs). But on most nights that’s a difference of one to three runs.
Walker tried to explain this nosedive with something as simple as, “We’re in a stretch where we’re facing some really good pitchers.” Except it’s really not that simple. If players were gripping the bats any tighter, they would be leaving a trail of sawdust from the dugout to the plate.
It hasn’t just been the offense. Their only reliable starting pitcher of late has been Kris Medlen, who wasn’t even in the rotation before July 31. The bullpen has blown two games. Defense has been erratic. Even on Sunday, Maholm forgot to cover first base on a potential double play ball to Freddie Freeman in the second.
This is little league stuff. This is mental stuff.
But with one swing, Jones changed this team’s fortunes, at least in the short term.
“Ah, nothing beats that,” he said. “That’s as good as it gets for a baseball player, being able to walk off the field, especially in our situation where we were just really down and out since about the fourth hitter of the game. And feeling like this was going to be a sweep and going to have to listen to everybody say stuff …”
If anybody can change how this story ends, it’s Jones.
By Jeff Schultz
Some selections from the jukebox