By John Donovan
January 20, 2005

Chipper Jones is back at third base, back to his All-Star roots, and if that's not flop-sweat desperation on the part of the Braves, it's getting really close. When a team moves people around to get a .212 hitter with a bad hamstring into the lineup, it certainly smells a lot like desperation.

"It just seemed like the logical decision," Jones said before Atlanta's 10-4 loss Wednesday to the hapless Royals. "It's not, by any means, desperation."

This has been a strange, often illogical season in Atlanta, weirder than any in the team's decade-plus run of division titles. Jones, the Braves' steadiest slugger for the past eight years, has epitomized it. In April he went on the disabled list for the first time since 1996. He's been unhappy. He's been in and out of the lineup since coming off the DL. He's been frustrated.

Jones started out well enough, hitting .314 until blowing out his right hamstring chasing down a liner in left field on April 18. It's been bad news pretty much ever since -- for Jones and the Braves.

But somehow, even in spite of Jones' hamstring and the broken collarbone suffered by second baseman Marcus Giles, the Braves have not collapsed. Atlanta has not won more than three games in a row all season, but the Braves haven't lost more than three in a row, either. Even with hitters who rank 12th in the National League in OPS, the Braves are hanging on, playing just under .500 to remain within reach (4 1/2 games) of the division-leading Marlins.

If the Braves can stay close until Jones gets healthy and Giles returns, the thinking goes, they might be able to overtake the Marlins and the second-place Phillies.

That's the thinking, anyway.

"I'm just trying to survive, to be honest with you," Jones said, and he could have been talking about the whole team. "I'm just trying to stay healthy and stay in the lineup every day. I feel like this is the only viable option."

The decision to bring Jones back to the infield is strange because he was never a great third baseman in the first place. He's played more than 1,000 games at the position -- and made the All-Star team five times -- but Tuesday was his first start at the hot corner since October 2001. The Braves had become disenchanted with his defense, opting to sign Vinny Castilla before 2002 and moving Jones to left field. Atlanta kept Jones there this season as it gave utilityman Mark DeRosa an everyday spot in the lineup.

Jones, though, never quite took to the outfield. He has mediocre range, an average arm and he'd drive fans bonkers with his lackadaisical jogs after hits into the corner. Still, no matter where he plays, his defense is secondary. He has driven in at least 100 runs in eight straight seasons, and he had a lifetime batting average of .309 entering 2004.

DeRosa has been erratic in the field (a four-error game in Colorado stands out) and dismal at the plate (a .222 batting average). So DeRosa is on the bench, replaced by a less-healthy guy who is not hitting and isn't much better with the glove. See how that works?

It sounds illogical, but it's all predicated on the shaky assumption that moving Jones to third base will help him heal more quickly than if he remained in the outfield, and that will get him back to his normal self.

And as far as possibly re-injuring the hamstring running the bases?

"I think running the bases is a controlled run, because you have to time your steps to hit each bag," Jones said. "In the outfield, the ball dictates how hard, how fast, you go. And sometimes that's full bore. That full-bore run is what's killing me."

The Braves, clearly, are scrambling. With a hobbled Jones at third, left field will become a platoon of utility man Eli Marrero and the inexperienced Dewayne Wise. Giles has been out for a month, though fill-in Nick Green has been good in his absence. Julio Franco, 45, is the team's starting first baseman. Andruw Jones is hitting under .250. It's not pretty.

But it's not desperate, they say. Not yet.

"No matter what's happened over the course of my career here, we've dealt with our share of injuries -- sickness, loss of personnel -- and been able to compensate for it. There's no reason to think this year is any different," Jones said. "It's certainly not going to get done with me hitting .210. But hopefully the move will better my health and those other guys will get better and we'll get back to full strength."

If Jones gets healthy by playing in the infield, plays a better third and starts to hit -- and everybody else comes around, too -- this thing could yet work. It's possible.

If not, the Braves are destined to stick in their wallow, someplace they can't afford to be in for much longer.

And if that happens, their next move could turn out to be truly desperate.

You May Like