Originally created 09/06/00

Chipper shows signs of ending slump



ATLANTA -- It's been a long month for Chipper Jones, who before Tuesday night's game against Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks found himself playing more like Atlanta's Most Vulnerable Brave instead of the National League's reigning MVP.

Since signing a six-year extension Aug. 17, Chipper's been nothing short of a liability in the Braves' push for a ninth consecutive division title. His August was abysmal, and the first few days of September not all that better.

Club insiders believe he's pressing, trying to duplicate his fabulous stretch run of a season ago where he vanquished the Mets and carried the franchise for six wonderful weeks. Then there's the issue of Chipper trying to justify receiving a $90-million contract, one that made him the richest Brave in a clubhouse of millionaires.

In the past month, Jose Lima got Chipper out. So, too, did this laundry list of mediocre hurlers: Steve Parris, Rob Bell, Brian Bohanon, Wade Miller, Ron Villone, Elmer Dessens. Then there's the slump's largest indignity, when Colorado catcher Brett Mayne jammed Chipper in extra innings to win a wild game at Coors Field. All were finding a way to frustrate the Braves' most lethal, and lately, the club's most lethargic bat.

So here comes Johnson, quite possibly the nastiest left-handed pitcher baseball's ever seen, to Turner Field as his D-Backs look to stay afloat in the playoff race.

Tuesday night proved a must-win game for both. The Braves had lost eight of 11 but somehow held a one-game lead over the staggering New York Mets. Arizona, since acquiring Curt Schilling, has fallen to five games behind San Francisco and desperately is hoping to remain a playoff contender.

Both teams started the National League's previous two Cy Young Award winners, Tom Glavine and Johnson, both of whom happen to be the two most worthy candidates of 2000.

So what happens? On a blustery night reminiscent of games at Candlestick Park, Chipper, the guy with all the holes in his swings lately, reminds us why Ted Turner and John Schuerholz made re-signing him such a priority.

Chipper hit two home runs off Johnson on Tuesday night, a year to the day Chipper also hit two home runs off the Big Unit. The first came on a 97 mph fastball, the second on a hanging two-strike slider. These were two pitches that Chipper had trouble handling the past six weeks, and maybe the best signs that his slump has ended.

To Chipper's credit, he never asked manager Bobby Cox for a day off, choosing to swing his way out from his doldrums. When you have eight hits in 48 at-bats and are coming off the worst month of your career, it's easy to look for excuses. Chipper's never done so, taking full responsibility for his, and his team's, slide.

Who knew Johnson, who recorded his 21st double-digit strikeout game Tuesday, would be such an antidote to Chipper's hitting problems.

"Are you guys trying to jinx me?" a sarcastic Chipper asked the media before the game when it was brought up that the switch-hitting 28-year-old is a robust .333 with three homers off Johnson.

"It's something I can't explain because there really is no explanation."

Besides his 6-foot-10 frame, Johnson delivers with one of baseball's oddest arm angles, sort of a slingshot sidearm that brings intense gas from the second base side. Chipper's improved his right-handed prowess, as he's third in the National League hitting off lefties.

But five home runs of Randy Johnson? Maybe Chipper needs to face him every at-bat from now on.

Reach Rick Dorsey at (706) 823-3219.