Chipper Jones is struggling. Maybe the New York Mets are arriving just in time.
The Atlanta third baseman has made a meal of the Mets' pitching this season with a .400 average in 12 games. It was Jones's big bat--four home runs in three games--that carried the Braves to a sweep of New York here in mid-September, the start of a Mets swoon that nearly ruined their postseason chances.
But as the two teams prepare to meet in the National League Championship Series Tuesday, Jones is in a funk. He hit .231 in four games against Houston in the first-round series, which the Braves won three games to one. The National League MVP candidate said Astros pitchers had him swinging at pitches out of the strike zone when they wouldn't give him anything to hit.
"It's got me a little frustrated," said Jones, who walked five times in 18 plate appearances. "It's got me swinging at pitches I wouldn't normally swing at. Hopefully I'll get back in that groove. Obviously I'm not swinging the bat like I was three weeks ago. I'll just be patient and hopefully they'll [the Mets] make a mistake."
Fortunately for the Braves, the rest of their lineup came alive in the Houston series while the Astros worked around Jones. Bret Boone, who batted .252 in the regular season, hit .474 against the Astros. Brian Jordan, who has been nursing a hand injury, hit .471 against Houston and drove in all five runs in a 5-3 victory in Game 3.
"Early in September I thought my season was over," said Jordan, who was hit by a pitch on his right hand on June 22 and suffered a deep bone bruise. "I was struggling pretty bad; I was in a lot of pain. I was starting to lack a little confidence."
Atlanta needs Jordan to continue to swing a hot bat because he bats fourth in the lineup and protects Jones, who hits third. The Astros were counting on Jordan, who had one home run from Aug. 16 through the end of the season, to continue to struggle. But Jordan received constant therapy on his hand, which relieved the pain and he slugged the Braves into the NLCS.
"He's the hottest guy in our lineup right now," Jones said. "What he did in the Division Series was awesome. He picked up the slack for everyone else and carried us, certainly through Game 3. It gives them [the Mets] something else to think about. It helps that I might get a pitch to hit at some point in the series."
Jones is the last person the Mets want to beat them. New York Manager Bobby Valentine said Jones considered the Mets finished for the year after Atlanta took five of six in two late-season series between the teams, and beat New York in nine of 12 meetings. Jones made the comment that Mets fans could "go get their Yankees stuff on now." Valentine saw it as blatant disrespect.
"You always say things in the heat of battle maybe you don't mean at the time," Jones said. "At that particular time it was a shot at the fans. Bobby can turn it around anyway he wants. If he's got to motivate his club he's got to motivate his club."
Atlanta closer John Rocker today added to the building animosity between the clubs when he said he was "shocked" that with all their talent the Mets struggled to get into the postseason.
Valentine said, "I guess he means we underachieved."
The Braves, meanwhile, have been considered underachievers themselves after being eliminated the past two years in the NLCS. They lost to the Marlins in six games two years ago and the Padres in six games last October. Jones said the Mets helped the Braves prepare for the 1999 postseason by staying in the race for the NL East title until mid-September.
"At the end of the season [in 1997 and 1998] we've had so much time between clinching and getting to the playoffs that everybody might have been a little rusty," Jones said. "It's tough to flip that switch on and off. This year we played right through the end of the season, we played everybody and hopefully that will help us coming into this postseason."
NLCS Notes: Valentine said catcher Mike Piazza's thumb "looks better" and said it seems as though Piazza can play in Game 1. . . . Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox hinted that Walt Weiss will probably start at shortstop in Game 1 ahead of Jose Hernandez, who hit .091 in the first round. Weiss is the superior defensive player. . . . The Braves still had 6,500 tickets available late today for Tuesday's Game 1.