Brad Wilkerson trotted home with the Washington Nationals' fourth run last Friday afternoon, prompting a mild epithet from an Atlanta Braves pitcher, who along with some teammates, was taking in the game between the Nats, Atlanta's National League East rivals, and the Chicago Cubs on a flat screen in the visitor's clubhouse at Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park. The obscenity elicited a giggle from infielder Marcus Giles, who glanced up from his Sony PSP long enough to admonish, "You have to keep telling yourself, It's only June." The joke: This was July 1. The stab at locker room humor went right over Andruw Jones's head because Jones was sprawled on a couch, knackered either because the Braves had not arrived in town until 4:30 that morning or because giving his team a piggyback ride across America had been exhausting.
Chipper Jones, Atlanta's third baseman and mainstay slugger, went on the disabled list with an injured toe ligament on June 6. Five days later the Braves' second Jones for the past nine seasons metamorphosed into the Second Coming--in a metaphoric way, of course. From June 11 through last Sunday and despite hitting virtually naked in the lineup, he did not go more than 13 at bats without a home run. In 22 games he had 14 homers, 30 RBIs, a .329 batting average and a mere 13 strikeouts in 98 plate appearances. He was leading the majors in homers, with 26, which helped earn the 28-year-old Jones his fourth All-Star Game appearance, on July 12 at Detroit's Comerica Park; the night before, he will compete for the first time in the Home Run Derby (page 71). With a shredded rotation and a batting order studded with faces that look as if they should be in prom pictures rather than on baseball cards, the almost unrecognizable Baby Braves have kept within hailing distance of Washington by hopping squarely on Jones's back. He has been a one-man Lumbar Company. "The only other time I saw something like this was [Sammy] Sosa and [Mark] McGwire [in 1998]," says Atlanta ace John Smoltz. "It was one [homer] after another for them because they were getting pitched to. Given the way our team is assembled, this could turn into a Barry Bonds situation. Andruw won't be pitched to."
The 2005 Andruw Jones Wallop-alooza Tour featured all the greatest hits: two home runs against the Oakland A's on June 11; a down-the-line, upper-deck screamer at Turner Field against the Florida Marlins on June 22 that traveled so far, it should have had a beverage cart; a walk-off homer against the Baltimore Orioles on June 25 that Braves first baseman Adam LaRoche says he knew was coming because "he hits one every game, and he hadn't hit one yet"; a 13th-inning rainbow at Florida's Dolphins Stadium on June 29. But when pressed for his favorite cut, Atlanta hitting coach Terry Pendleton chooses an opposite-field, two-strike single with runners on the corners against the Marlins on June 28. "You should have seen the open mouths on the Marlins," says Pendleton. "It was like, You kidding me? He hit a ball there?" For Jones, rightfield is a virtual wilderness. In 36 home games through Sunday, Jones had just three hits to the right side. But he had three in Florida last week.
Jones remains a dead pull hitter, but now, because of a new stance he adopted in spring training, he handles the outside part of the plate without lunging. His hands remain high and his bat still waves gently as if swayed by a zephyr, but he has widened his feet to reduce the length of his stride. Though Jones's swing is still long, it is considerably shorter than it used to be. "He has all good at bats now, or almost," says Atlanta manager Bobby Cox. "He looks more balanced, more selective."
The timing of Jones's virtuosity was more than serendipity. The day after Chipper Jones went down, he told Andruw that he would have to bear down and carry the team if it were to have any chance of staying in contention. Smoltz expressed similar sentiments. Andruw told them, No problem, he had their backs. "I said to Andruw, 'Yeah, we've got to see that, not just have you talk about it,'" Pendleton recalls, and a few days later Andruw proposed a wager: He would have 20 homers by the time the Braves returned from the road on June 19. Considering that meant eight homers in nine games, it seemed an audacious prediction. Even after a binge of six in seven games, Pendleton teased that Jones would be the one paying off. Jones riposted, "We got a lefthander [Cincinnati's Eric Milton] today? No problem." He homered as promised but was stymied in the final game of the trip when the Reds limited him to an RBI single, a double and three walks. Jones lost the bet, but the Braves won big.
"This is the Andruw we've been expecting for years," says Eddie Perez, Atlanta's injured backup catcher. "Not that he had bad years, but he could have had way, way better ones. In 1996 we went to the World Series, and everybody said, 'Wow, this kid is going to be good.' Now we're seeing it."
No other player has been so burdened by two plate appearances in the infancy of his career. In the cathedral of Yankee Stadium, a 19-year-old Jones homered in his first two World Series at bats without bothering to genuflect. As Smoltz expresses it, from that point everyone expected this wunderkind from Cura√ßao "to be Mickey Mantle. Or better." Directions to Cooperstown? Play 15 years and hang a left.
Jones was not merely a plaque in waiting, he was cool: trademark smirk, languid swing, satiny stride as he closed on fly balls in centerfield, one-handed catches at shoulder level. Some thought that Jones cruised on his innate ability, a harsh assessment for an All-Star who, through Sunday, had 276 career home runs, three seasons with more than 100 RBIs and enough Gold Gloves--seven--to fill a window at Tiffany's.
"People put too many expectations out there," Jones says, a hint of annoyance in his soft voice. "I heard I was going to hit 50 home runs or 40 home runs. I never did that in the minors or in the big leagues, but that thing kept going around: 'When are you going to have your breakout year?'" The bar was set so obscenely high that Jones sashayed under it. Still, he was keeping up with the more celebrated Jones. Since 1998, Andruw's second full big league season, he led Chipper in home runs (253 to 243) and narrowly trailed in RBIs (758 to 743).
Atlanta's injury-racked rotation is expected to be healthy after the All-Star break, and Cox thinks the Braves might look like a semblance of themselves by Aug. 1. Meanwhile Jones, the oldest player in the lineup on most days, will try to keep giving a lift to kids like outfield partners Kelly Johnson, 23, and Ryan Langerhans, 25. "I told him, 'You know an MVP award would really go well with those Gold Gloves,'" says Chipper. "'A little round plaque. Got Kenesaw Mountain Landis's name on it. They put your name on it. I've got one. I'd like you to have one, too.'"