Braves now a little less chipper

Atlanta will have it tough holding off Phillies sans Jones

August 15, 2010|By Phil Rogers

Gotta admit, it's been awfully easy to root for the Braves this season. That's at least in part why Chipper Jones' blown-out left knee stung so much for so many people, especially those who have been following Atlanta baseball the last two decades.

The Bobby Cox Farewell Tour deserves to end in the playoffs, not at the end of his 29th regular season as a manager. That still might happen, but the Braves face a difficult task in holding off the Phillies without Jones, who suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament when he landed awkwardly after making a throw Tuesday.

"It couldn't have come at a worse time, as well as he was playing," Braves general manager Frank Wren said.

Jones had started the season slowly but had gotten back in form, hitting .307 with seven home runs in his last 44 games.

"I told Chipper he was swinging as well as I'd ever seen him," Cox said. "He's lowered his posture from the left-hand side and was just attacking the ball. That led me to believe he'd be leading us on. But not anymore."

Jones, 38, is signed through 2012 but has talked all season about being unsure whether he wants to keep playing after Cox — the only manager he's ever had — retires. Now he'll have to ponder that question while enduring a difficult rehabilitation likely to take six to eight months. He missed the entire 1994 season while recovering from the same procedure on that knee.

One of the best switch hitters in history, Jones has been one of the National League's top players since 1995, when he lost Rookie of the Year voting to Hideo Nomo. That disappointment was a precursor to the kind of career it would be for Jones, who in many ways has been Atlanta's version of Derek Jeter.

He almost always has done everything right on and off the field but hasn't been able to enjoy the fruits of his labor nearly as much as Jeter or many other players. The Braves beat the Indians in the '95 World Series and would go back the following year and in '99, but Jeter and the Yankees took care of them both times — in six games in '96 and in a sweep the next time.

Since that '99 World Series, the Braves have gone 11-16 in playoff games, winning only one of seven series. They haven't been to the postseason since 2005, watching as the Phillies and their old-school manager, Charlie Manuel, took over the NL.

All signs were pointing to a return, but you could almost hear the balance of power shift when Jones hurt himself at Minute Maid Park.

"When you think of the Atlanta Braves, the first guy you think of is Chipper Jones," Wren told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "And his presence in the lineup has been increasing (given) his performance the last couple months. He was a force. We're losing a lot."

Jones initially laid low after the injury, as is his style. His agent, B.B. Abbott, says it's going to take awhile for him to get his arms around the situation. Jones told reporters Friday at Turner Field he's planning to play in 2011.

"I'm going to go through the process just like I'm getting ready for spring training," he said. "I don't know how the knee is going to respond. … We'll see how it feels after that."

The Braves have led the NL East since May 31, counting heavily on their pitching and table-setters Martin Prado and Jason Heyward. They moved seven games ahead of the limping Phillies on July 22, but the margin wasn't comfortable for long.

Had Jones been hurt a couple of weeks earlier, Wren could have tried to trade for Aramis Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, Jorge Cantu or another replacement. The Cubs still might be able to slide Ramirez through waivers, but Wren says he's considering mostly internal options for the stretch run, with more playing time for Omar Infante the first alternative. Brooks Conrad and Eric Hinske also could get some starts.

Plan B for Ryno?: If Jim Hendry wants to hire Ryne Sandberg as the Cubs' next manager, he should be able to do that without an exhaustive search. But he has indicated he's going to talk to many candidates — possibly more than 10 — in a thorough process likely to run at least through the playoffs, after which he'll know if Joe Girardi is a free agent.

Sandberg, the Cubs' Triple-A manager, might have to force the issue at some point. He seems likely to get an interview in Seattle, where Don Wakamatsu was fired early in the week.

A Spokane native who was once on track to play quarterback for Washington State, Sandberg would be a popular choice. Bobby Valentine is considered an early front-runner.

White Sox bench coach Joey Cora, a finalist when Wakamatsu was hired, also could figure in the process. Interim manager Daren Brown is considered a long shot.

Beaten to the punch: There's a feeling inside the Yankees' clubhouse that another bat is needed, even after the addition of Lance Berkman and Austin Kearns at the deadline. Some players were intrigued by the availability of Jose Guillen, whom the Royals had designated for assignment, but he was traded to the Giants on Friday.

Curtis Granderson is under pressure to pull off a fast finish after continuing the hitting slide that prompted the Tigers to trade him.

He entered the weekend hitting .243 with 10 home runs and only 34 RBIs and was batting .221 against lefties.

He went to see hitting coach Kevin Long last week in Texas, and they began an intense course of work.

"He said, 'How much worse can it get?'" Long said. "I agreed."

The last word: "They used to use it on dinosaurs." — Rays manager Joe Maddon on the size of the MRI machine needed for right-hander Jeff Niemann, who is 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds.

progers@tribune.com

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