Freddi Gonzalez had fiddled with his lineup since spring training, switching between one that alternated left-and right-handed batters, and another that stacked power in the front and left the back end to Jack Wilson and the pitcher.
But on Tuesday night in Houston, Gonzalez had an ace up his sleeve. Chipper Jones told Gonzalez and the Braves’ trainers he didn’t need a stint in the minors after undergoing surgery on a torn meniscus in his right knee.
He rehabbed in the offseason and spring training, and Jones felt it was time to return to his ailing ballclub. The Braves had been outscored 20-10 in a dismal push out of the gates and needed a surge of offense from somewhere.
Jones provided that surge from the six hole in the Braves lineup with a home run and two RBI, going 2-for-4 in the debut of his farewell tour of 2012. He added a barehanded throw to first on a beautiful bunt by Jordan Schaefer in the bottom of the first.
The Braves won the game 6-4, with Tyler Pastornicky hitting his first major league home run, and RBI from Dan Uggla and Freddie Freeman adding to the lead for Tommy Hanson, who threw just three innings, giving up two earned runs before passing the ball to a strong bullpen.
Eric Hinske added an opposite-field RBI single in the top of the eighth that cushioned Craig Kimbrel’s first save of the season.
The offense in Atlanta needed a jump start to come from somewhere, and Jones seemed to provide it. He can win games for the Braves this season, but if they have to rely on him for consistent team-carrying offense, they will be in trouble pretty quickly.
Gonzalez needs to lock in a lineup to let his players settle into the season. Prado, Freeman and Uggla have struggled early this season and in spring training, and with Chipper adding needed reassurance behind them in the lineup, they should turn things around and start hitting by May.
Any way you slice it, the NL East is a brutally competitive division; easily the most competitive in the National League.
The Braves are going to need to not just stay above water, but create the wake in the East pool to be able to hope for a second wild-card spot.
If the Braves are relying on Chipper, who turns 40 in two weeks, for consistent wins over the long haul this season, they are going to be left out of the new expanded playoffs.