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At 36, Chipper's off to the best start of his career

POSTED: May 17, 2008 5:00 a.m.
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Atlanta Braves' Chipper Jones drives in a run with a double in the first inning Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds in Atlanta. At 36 years old, Jones is leading the majors with a .425 batting average entering tonight's game.

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ATLANTA — As manager of the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs and now the Cincinnati Reds, Dusty Baker has had a front-row seat for many of Chipper Jones’ career highlights.

Baker left Atlanta on Sunday convinced Jones, the 1999 NL MVP and the Atlanta Braves’ all-time leaders in home runs, is better than ever at 36.

"He’s always been a great hitter," said Baker on Sunday before adding "but right now ..."

Jones had seven hits in 13 at-bats in the Braves’ three-game sweep of the Reds. On Sunday, the switch-hitter was 3-for-6 with a homer, a double and five RBIs.

"Chipper got a homer from one side, and then turned around and got a hit from the other side," Baker said.

Jones hit .410 in April — an average for the month topped by only one player in the last 10 years: Barry Bonds hit .472 in April, 2004. Vladimir Guerrero also hit .410 in the opening month in 2000.

As if to make the point his stellar April was no fluke, Jones has pushed his major league-leading average to .425 for the Braves, who were off on Monday and open a home series against San Diego today.

Baker could only shake his head in wonderment and appreciation.

"That’s some sweet stroke he’s got," Baker said.

Sweet and consistent.

Jones has hits in 25 of 28 games, including 14 multihit games. He’s hitting .400 against left-handers and .438 against right-handers. He’s hitting .500 (28-for-56) with runners on base.

Jones, a career .309 hitter, has nine .300 seasons in 14 years, including a career-best .337 last season, when he was second in the NL behind Colorado’s Matt Holliday.

Since the start of the 2006 season, Jones is hitting .340, the best mark of any player in the majors with at least 1,000 at-bats.

Jones drove in 100 or more runs in eight straight years from 1996-2003 before his power totals were hurt by injuries, including chronic problems with his feet. He fell below 100 RBIs three straight years before hitting 29 homers with 102 RBIs in 134 games last season, when he set a career high with 42 doubles.

Jones’ power game is peaking with his average. He ranks fourth in the NL with nine homers and 27 RBIs. He has 395 homers, third behind Mickey Mantle (536) and Eddie Murray (504) on the career list for switch-hitters.

There were some concerns before the season about the Braves’ ability to replace Jones’ longtime partner in the middle of the lineup, Andruw Jones, who signed with the Dodgers.

With Andruw Jones struggling in Los Angeles, Mark Kotsay is hitting .301 as the new Braves’ centerfielder. And with Chipper Jones leading the way, Atlanta had 15 hits and 19 hits in back-to-back wins over the Reds Saturday and Sunday to complete the three-game sweep.

The Braves have injury concerns on their pitching staff, but their .287 team batting average leads the majors.

"As long as we crush people to death, our starting pitching and our bullpen should be fine," Jones said with a smile Sunday.

The three-game sweep of the Reds was well-timed, moving the Braves (15-15) back to .500 following four straight road losses to the Mets and Nationals.

"It was good to see us kind of bust loose," Jones said. "We’ve been really struggling, especially through the middle of the order."

Leadoff hitter Kelly Johnson had four hits, including three doubles, and Kotsay added three hits, including a homer, in the 14-7 win on Sunday.

"We’re gonna generate a lot of runs when the top of our lineup is hitting like that," Jones said.

Especially with that .425 average from the team’s No. 3 hitter.



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