On Aug. 10, Chipper Jones limped off the field at Houston’s Minute Maid Park. He had made a great play on a ball hit over the bag, but he landed funny on his left knee -- the same knee Jones tore in spring training in 1994.
Some believed Jones’ career would be over. He had struggled for much of the 2010 season, even coming close to walking away in May. But after having surgery, Jones instead felt compelled to come back and prove he still has some baseball left in him.
The results have been astonishing, and Jones had an outstanding spring training. He hit the ball with authority, looking better than he has since when he won the batting title three years ago. And the main positive has been his health.
Usually in spring training, Jones battles nagging injuries. Remember, he is almost 39 years old. But this year, he has been relatively injury-free. The knee is good, and while he has a few aches and pains, Jones has not missed any time.
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“It’s been wonderful since I got down here,” Jones said. “I’m not surprised at the way I’ve swung the bat or the way I’ve played defense because I always feel I can do those things. I’m just surprised I’ve done it relatively pain-free. I’ve been playing the last three weeks or so with no pain whatsoever.”
The Atlanta Braves are happy to hear that.
“He’s had one bad day where the knee acted up. That was very early when the pitchers and catchers reported,” new manager Fredi Gonzalez said. “But ever since then, knock on wood, that knee just keeps getting better. I think it’s just a matter of confidence. He knows now that knee is going to hold up.”
On Thursday afternoon in Washington, Jones will take the field once again as the veteran leader of the Braves. And like the previous 16 seasons, his health and production are crucial to Atlanta’s potential success.
The Braves are banking on Jones being a force in the middle of the lineup. While his numbers have been down the past few seasons, most believe Jones is still a threat. And spring training has only proved he’s not done yet.
“That No. 10 comes up with that ‘Crazy Train’ song coming up ... it scares you. Believe me, I was in the other dugout, “ said Gonzalez, who was Florida‘s manager for three-and-a-half years before getting fired last season. “Chipper Jones is going to come up with some big hits for us this year.”
It was natural to be a little skeptical about whether Jones would regain his form after a major injury. It’s one thing to come back from the knee surgery, but even Jones was curious as to how he would do when he got back on the field.
“After seven months of not playing, and at my advanced age, you always wonder a little bit,” he admitted. “But it’s like running a bike. You just play the game and wait for the situation to come to you, and when you get the opportunity whale on something.”
Atlanta’s other big concern in spring training was Nate McLouth, who struggled last year with a .190 batting average. McLouth’s potential comeback depends somewhat on Jones. McLouth will hit second in the lineup, with Jones right behind him. If Jones struggles, it could make it more difficult for the center fielder to get back on track.
So far the results have been positive. McLouth had a good spring, with an average just below .300 and an on-base percentage pushing .400.
“The biggest thing with Nate was getting his confidence up and getting him to be more aggressive at the plate,” Jones said. “We want him to be aggressive and get back to the mindset that he had when he was playing in Pittsburgh. I think he’s done that this spring. He also was a question mark, and I think he’s kind of silenced some people, too.”
Jones is also important when looking at the structure of the defense. If Jones is not able to stay healthy, the team will have to move left fielder Martin Prado to third base. That would force a need for another productive bat for the outfield, which could come from someone on the roster. But if it’s a long-term need, the Braves may have to look elsewhere for help.
But right now, Jones’ performance and health in spring training has everyone feeling positive about what he can do this season. And he remains intent on proving his skeptics wrong.
“Whatever I do down here doesn’t really matter,” Jones said. “I have to go prove myself in the season over the long haul. There’s a small bit of gratification of coming into spring training and you actually being a question mark after 16 years of not being a question mark. Now I’m a question mark. To have come down here and hit well and to done a little bit of damage, it’s awfully gratifying.”