PITTSBURGH — The storybook ending for Chipper Jones would have been putting a fastball into the Allegheny River.
At age 40, however, Jones doesn’t try to mash the baseball so much as massage it. Instead, the Atlanta Braves third baseman had to settle for bookending his 19-year career with pinch-hit singles.
Jones rapped an A.J. Burnett pitch to right field in his final regular season at-bat and the Atlanta Braves beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 4-0 on Wednesday.
“I’d like to thank A.J. for coming right at me,” Jones said with a laugh after collecting the 2,726th and final regular-season hit of his
Jones entered as a pinch hitter in the sixth. Batting left-handed, he took the first pitch he saw from Burnett and laced it to the outfield, proving a nice bit of symmetry. Jones singled in the first at-bat of his career against Cincinnati on Sept. 14, 1993.
“I got to go out the same way I came in,” Jones said.
The 94-win Braves, who are heading into the postseason – they play host to St. Louis on Friday in the wild-card game – with some momentum after a stunning collapse last fall.
Instead of swooning down the stretch this year, they’ve surged. Atlanta is 20-10 since Sept. 1.
“A little bit different than last year as I recall,” Jones said. “I think we’ll look back on (last) September as a learning experience. No better example of that than the way we played this September.”
The Braves ended 1993 in the World Series, though Jones didn’t play. They’re hoping to do the same after grabbing the top wild-card spot.
“Now we’ve got to get over this one-game playoff thing to give ourselves a legitimate shot at what we were all shooting for out of spring training,” Jones said.
While Jones is heading to the postseason, Atlanta pitcher Ben Sheets is almost certainly not. Still, the veteran right-hander who has been dogged by injuries in recent years was able to go out on his own terms.
Sheets pitched one scoreless inning in what he’s said will be his final major league appearance, striking out two – including Pittsburgh star Andrew McCutchen – while hitting 96 mph on the radar gun.
“It felt great,” Sheets said. “It was as good as anything I could probably draw up.”
Sheets is unlikely to be placed on Atlanta’s postseason roster, but with a playoff spot secure and nothing really to lose, the Braves sent the four-time All-Star to the mound one last time. He needed just a couple minutes to get loose and when he walked back to the dugout after three quick outs, he knew he was done.
Asked if he’d consider sticking around to find a spot in a bullpen somewhere, Sheets just smiled and said, “dude, I’m good.”
Jason Heyward singled twice and scored two runs for the Braves while Luis Avilan (1-0) won on a day Atlanta used eight pitchers to hold Pittsburgh to four hits.
“We got some stuff accomplished today and we got the win,” said Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez. “A lot of good stuff.”
Burnett (16-10) gave up four runs in 52/3 innings for Pittsburgh. The Pirates finished 79-83, extending their record streak of losing seasons to 20.
“We needed to win our games,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Our goal was to win more games.”
A regular-season finale that looked like it might be important a month ago had a decidedly spring training feel after the Pirates collapsed down the stretch.
Pittsburgh was 62-46 on Aug. 8 but finished on a 17-37 slide, though the team’s 79 wins tied for the most since the infamous streak began following a loss to the Braves in the 1992 NL Championship Series.
“You have to try and take some positives from it,” said McCutchen, who hit .327 this season to finish second behind San Francisco’s Buster Posey for the NL batting title. “Every year is hard to take when you don’t end up where you want to be. Every year is tough.”
Maybe none, however, were more painful than this one. The Pirates were the talk of baseball over the summer behind a pitching staff that flourished behind Burnett, who embraced the roll of ace the team desperately needed. He won eight straight decisions in the spring but tailed off over the final two months and couldn’t avoid his fifth loss in his six starts, though he exited to a warm ovation.
“I thought he had an exceptional season,” Hurdle said of Burnett. “He took ownership of the trade, the career, the opportunity to re-ignite himself.”