They've entrenched themselves in a Wild Card spot by storming their way to a 28-13 record since the beginning of July, but the Braves haven't gotten a great deal of attention lately. Even during that run, they've lost half a game to the Nationals in the NL East standings, and merely matched the Reds, who have secured the NL Central lead even in the absence of Joey Votto. When Atlanta has come up for discussion, it's largely been with regards to its rotation, which has been in a perpetual state of flux due to injuries. The hitters doing the heavy lifting have fallen under the radar.
No Braves hitter has been doing more of the heavy lifting during that run than Chipper Jones. In what's supposed to be his final season, the 40-year-old third baseman is hitting .345/.415/.605 since the beginning of July, tops among the team's regulars in all three categories. On Thursday night — which just happened to be Chipper Jones Bobblehead Night at Turner Field — Jones homered twice against the Padres to back Kris Medlen's five-hit shutout. Both shots came off Jason Marquis; the second, which traveled a season-high 437 feet, was the 466th of his career, pushing him past Dave Winfield for 32nd on the all-time home run list. It also marked the 2,700th hit of his career.
It hasn't been an easy season for Jones. He began the season on the disabled list after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee on March 26. It was his third knee surgery in as many seasons, and the second on his left one, which required season-ending ACL surgery back in 2010; he underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee last summer. He rebounded quickly, missing just the first four games of this season, then making a grand entrance by homering in his second plate appearance. He was forced to the disabled list again in late May after sustaining a bruised left calf on a sharp one-hopper, missing another 14 games after undergoing surgery to drain the resulting hematoma.
When he has played, Jones has made a huge impact. In 76 games and 307 plate appearances, he has hit .315/.391/.519, his best numbers in all three categories since 2008, when at the age of 36, he won the NL batting title by hitting .364, and led the league in on-base percentage with a .470 mark. His 2.5 Wins Above Replacement Player this season ranks third on the team behind Jason Heyward (3.9) and Michael Bourn (2.9), and fifth among all third basemen, behind David Wright (5.1), Miguel Cabrera (4.2), Chase Headley (3.4) and Brett Lawrie (3.3), all of whom have at least 24 more games played and 120 more plate appearances. Jones' .320 True Average (runs per plate appearance, expressed on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring rates) ranks third among third basemen behind Wright (.329) and Cabrera (.326). The Braves are 43-26 when he's in the lineup, compared to 26-23 without him, though understudy Juan Francisco has hit a productive .258/.307/.483 in 163 plate appearances, numbers weighted down by a 4-for-31 performance as a pinch-hitter.
Jones has been threatening retirement since at least 2009, only to prolong his career. But even given his current performance and that of his team — not to mention a $7 million club option for next season — he's adamant that this is his final go-round. "Nights like tonight are really cool and I'll never forget them. But I'm ready to do something else," he told reporters after Thursday's game, adding that he doesn't want to play next year: "That's what people don't get. I've made promises to the most important people in my life, and I'm not going back on that promise."
Given the grind of the long season and the wear and tear on his body, that's perfectly understandable. Jones has started five games in a row just twice this year, and he says even that's too much for his body sometimes. In the previous seven seasons, he has played more than 134 games just once, and averaged 121 games a year; perhaps what's most remarkable is that even given his injuries, his .306/.404/.524 line from 2005 onward is nearly identical to the .304/.401/.537 he hit from 1993-2004 — slightly better, even, given the downturn in scoring. With eight All-Star appearances, an MVP award, a world championship and 11 trips to the postseason, he's already got a strong case for Cooperstown, with little left to accomplish aside from protracted chases for 3,000 hit and 500 home run milestones that might take three more seasons to achieve given his pace. Still, given that Jones missed the team's last trip to the postseason due to injury, another October appearance would undoubtably be nice. The Braves are in a strong position to make that a reality; at 69-49, they have the better record of the two NL Wild Card leaders, with a four-game cushion over the number two team, the Pirates, and a five-game cushion over the Giants and Cardinals. The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds report places their chances at reaching the postseason at 93.0 percent, including an 18.1 percent chance of snatching the NL East flag from the Nationals, who lead them by four games. The two teams have six head-to-head games remaining, three in Washington next week, and three in Atlanta from September 14-16, by which point Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg might be shut down. So while the 2012 season appears to be Chipper Jones' final go-round, it may very well extend into October one last time.