The Braves, like Chipper, go nowhere

Gordon Edes

MIAMI – How long has it been that Chipper Jones(notes) hasn't felt right?

"About the last five years,'' he said with a chuckle. "You want me to be honest, the last five years.

"But it's no excuse for not performing. I'm not going to make excuses. I've not had a good year.''

And his team, the Atlanta Braves, hasn't had a great one; they can't seem to gain traction in the National League wild-card race.

The Braves had won the first two in the four-game series against the Florida Marlins and had a chance to close in on the Colorado Rockies and San Francisco Giants, both of whom lost Thursday. Instead, the Braves lost for the second night in a row and allowed the Marlins to draw even with them, four games behind the Rockies in the National League wild-card chase with 28 to play.

"It just seems like every time we get a little mini-run going, we have some kind of meltdown that prevents us from getting any big-time momentum going,'' Jones said Thursday night after touted rookie starter Tommy Hanson(notes) lasted just five innings and couldn't hold a two-run lead.

On Wednesday Jones, in the midst of a 6 for 53 slump, was not in the starting lineup because of a sore back, but came off the bench to hit a three-run pinch double. The elation was short-lived, however, as the Braves, after fighting back from a four-run deficit, succumbed to a walkoff home run in the ninth by Wes Helms(notes).

On Thursday night Jones was back at third base and had an RBI single, but that could not prevent another implosion – the Marlins taking advantage of two Braves errors, two wild pitches and seven hits against two relievers (including a game-tying pinch single by the hobbled Hanley Ramirez(notes)) to score six runs for an 8-3 win and a series split.

Manager Bobby Cox felt the frustration, drawing the 149th ejection of his career for complaining about umpire Jim Wolf's strike zone. Cox contended Wolf was directly responsible for Hanson's early dismissal, the right-hander having thrown 104 pitches.

"They have computers,'' Cox said of the umpires' evaluation system. "The way to beat the system is don't call strikes low, high, in, out. Nothing. He's a good umpire, but I think honestly I could umpire. All I'd have to say is 'Ball.' One down the middle, I would call a strike.''

It has been four years since the Braves made the playoffs, eight since they played for the NL pennant, a decade since they last appeared in the World Series. General manager Frank Wren last winter remade the pitching staff, adding Derek Lowe(notes), Javier Vazquez(notes) and Kenshin Kawakami(notes) to holdover Jair Jurrjens(notes). The emergence of rookie Hanson has given the Braves the deepest rotation in the league.

Jones, who played for a World Series winner as a 23-year-old rookie in 1995 and in every October for 10 seasons thereafter, signed a contract extension this spring in the belief that a return of the glory days was in the offing.

"I know it's not going to be an open window forever,'' he said of playing in the postseason again."But I wouldn't have signed back here if I didn't think we'd get back. I'm spoiled. Flat-out spoiled. I want to win at all costs, and if I'm not going to have a chance to do that here, then I'd go somewhere else. But I felt we could get back.''

At 37, however, the aches and pains are more frequent for Jones, who led the NL last season with a .364 batting average and .470 on-base percentage but has seen his average plummet this season to .277. It began with a strained oblique muscle during the World Baseball Classic, and while he has avoided a stint on the DL, at various times he has had issues with his foot, his elbow, his groin, his back, even a dizzy spell.

In his last 69 games entering Wednesday, he was batting just .237.

"I threw numbers and goals out the window a couple of months ago,'' he said. "I'm just trying to help us win.''

And as has been the case for too long, the Braves are short on bats. Catcher Brian McCann(notes) hit his 18th home run Thursday night. That leads the team; it wouldn't crack the top seven for the Yankees. Adam LaRoche(notes) has hit eight home runs since coming over from Boston and has stretched out the lineup, but he's hitting in the No. 7 hole. Outfielder Nate McLouth(notes), who was supposed to give the Braves a consistent presence at the top of the order when he was acquired from Pittsburgh, strained a hamstring Aug. 8, aggravated it a week later, and is still out on a rehab assignment.

Close games are commonplace for the Braves, who began the night with a league-leading 43 one-run decisions (they're 23-20). That has meant Cox taxing his bullpen more than he'd like. Three Braves relievers – Peter Moylan(notes), Mike Gonzalez(notes) and Eric O'Flaherty(notes) – rank in the top five in the league in appearances, Moylan with a league-leading 75.

In each of the last two nights, Cox turned to a rookie, Kris Medlen(notes), with disastrous results. Medlen entered with the bases loaded Wednesday and gave up a bases-clearing double to Brett Carroll(notes) and three more singles in a five-run sixth. Thursday night, it was walk, whiff, double, single, double, this time in a six-run sixth.

Jones dropped a foul popup in that inning, which eventually led to three unearned runs.

"Always happens,'' Jones said of the Marlins exploiting the error. "But there were a lot of mistakes that inning.''

The schedule would seem to favor the Braves. Of their last 28 games, only nine are against teams above .500, including three more against the Marlins in Atlanta on the last weekend of September. The Marlins' last six games will be on the road against the Braves and first-place Phillies. The Giants play nine games in a row against the Dodgers and Rockies and also have four games against the Cubs. The Rockies also have only nine games left against teams with winning records, but six of their last nine are against the Cardinals (three in Denver) and a three-game set to end the season in L.A. against the Dodgers.

"Yeah, it should work in our favor,'' Jones said, "but we've tended to play up to the level of competition we're playing, and down to the level of competition we're playing. We've got to really not let teams get away with beating us that shouldn't.''

To make the playoffs, Jones said, the Braves will have to finish about 16 games above .500. That's a tall order: They would have to win 19 of their last 28. Even then, he admits, with the Braves chasing multiple teams, that might not be enough.

"We've played better than we have in years,'' he said, "but to make the playoffs, you've got to be more consistent. You've got to put games away when you've got 'em, you've got to win games on the road.

"We'll do that, then we'll have just a gut-wrencher, kind of like [Wednesday] night, then it spills over to the next game. All of a sudden, instead of heading north you're heading south.''