Chipper Jones hopes Atlanta’s free fall ends soon

Published 9:30 pm Monday, September 8, 2008

ATLANTA – Chipper Jones never hesitates to speak his mind when asked about the state of the Atlanta Braves.

Suffice it to say that the second half of 2008 hasn’t exactly caused the All-Star third baseman to wax euphoric, this despite a .358 batting average that’s second-best in the majors and just one point off Albert Pujols’ lead.

A 14-inning loss to Washington on Sunday dropped the Braves 20 games under .500 for the third time in one week.

“It was the same old story,” Jones said. “We can’t get outs in the seventh and eighth innings to get the ball to (closer Mike Gonzalez). Yeah, we had some opportunities offensively, but you just like to see games that you have firmly in your grasp won. We just haven’t been able to bridge the gap consistently between the starter and the closer.”

No, as manager Bobby Cox as often said over the last two-plus months, Atlanta rarely gives itself a chance. The Braves consistently leave runners in scoring position. Their defense makes untimely errors.

Even Sunday, when starting pitcher Jo-Jo Reyes seemed on the verge of ending a six-decision losing streak, relievers Julian Tavarez and Blaine Boyer combined to blow the lead.

For Jones, the 1999 NL MVP and an everyday player since the Atlanta won the 1995 World Series, this year began falling apart not long after ace John Smoltz had season-ending shoulder surgery on June 3.

Since then, Jones has watched injuries, trades and ineffectiveness cause his support system to disappear.

“It’s hard to hit with both hand wrapped around your neck,” he said. “And that’s what it feels like when you walk up there. The weight of the team depends on you to drive in the big run, get something kick-started. Once you don’t do it a time or two, the pressure mounts each and every time you have that opportunity.”

A 9-5 loss to Toronto on June 28 started Atlanta’s free fall in the standings. Now 62-82 and desperately trying to stay ahead of the last-place Nationals, the Braves have dropped 41 of 63 and hardly resemble the team that broke spring training with a roster that included first baseman Mark Teixeira, promising right fielder Jeff Francoeur, closer Rafael Soriano, starters Smoltz, Tim Hudson, Tom Glavine and Chuck James.

Teixeira now plays for the Los Angeles Angels. Hudson, Glavine, Soriano and setup man Peter Moylan endured season-ending injuries like Smoltz.

Francoeur’s lack of discipline finally caught up with the free-swinging hitter. Even a brief demotion to Class AA Mississippi couldn’t help Francoeur regain the swagger he showed in hitting a combined .276 with 48 homers and 208 RBIs the previous two seasons.

Entering Tuesday’s game against Colorado, Francoeur has a .229 average in 192 at-bats since he returned from the minors on July 7.

Jones, the No. 3 hitter, has lacked protection in the lineup since Teixeira was traded. Catcher Brian McCann, a three-time All-Star with legitimate power, usually bats cleanup, but his average is 36 points below his career mark of .294 since returning Aug. 4 from a concussion that cost him seven games.

McCann could use some extra rest. In a 5-0 loss to San Francisco on Aug. 18, he lost track of the count on ball four to Dave Roberts. Thinking that Emmanuel Burriss was trying to steal third base, McCann mistakenly tried to throw him out, but he exacerbated an embarrassing situation by throwing the ball into left field for the Giants’ final run.

On Sunday, McCann had the day off, but Cox used him as a pinch-hitter in the 11th with no out and runners on first and second. McCann, who was not told to sacrifice, tried to bunt on the first pitch, which he fouled off. He struck out three pitches later.

“I was in a situation where I got up there and I was looking out at the pitcher and the shadows were so horrible,” McCann said. “(Washington reliever Saul Rivera’s pitches have) a ton of movement. I have a tough time facing that guy and with those shadows, I was just trying to get the guys over.”

McCann acknowledged that he made a mistake in attempting to sacrifice.

“I probably shouldn’t have done that because obviously he would have sent up a pitcher to do that,” he said. “He wanted me to drive in that run. When that at-bat was over I started thinking about it. I probably did the wrong thing.”

Jones knows McCann is talented and smart enough to play at a high level for years. Jones just wants the Braves to put together a winning streak, however small, so that the nucleus of Atlanta’s lineup — himself, McCann, second baseman Kelly Johnson, first baseman Casey Kotchman and Francoeur — will have something to build on when spring training begins in February.

“Hopefully we can get a game here pretty soon where everybody in the lineup gets a hit, drives in a run, multi-hit games,” Jones said. “Those are things that build confidence.”