ATLANTA - Coincidence or not, the Braves went from league doormat to division leader within eight days of Chipper Jones' move from left field to third base.
Jones was shifted June 15 with the team in third place, a game under .500 and 31/2 games out. There was no miraculous turnaround, at least not right away. The Braves won that night, then dropped six of their next seven games.
But during the next three months, they ran off 56 wins in 80 games as Jones played terrific defense and started to hit.
"I think if you make that correlation between me coming in to play third and the team taking off, then you also have to give credit to the guys who replaced me in left field," Jones said, referring to Charles Thomas and Eli Marrero. "They've hit .300 between them and played excellent defense, probably making some plays I wouldn't have made."
Jones also pointed out that the starting pitchers began pitching better at the same time, delivering a series of quality starts that allowed the team to build some momentum and confidence.
"There's a little bit of a domino effect there," he said.
Heading into Tuesday night's game, the Braves' magic number for clinching a 13th straight division championship was five. Jones, like closer John Smoltz, said he planned to celebrate this title with a bit more gusto than usual.
"(Smoltz) and I agree that this is one of the more satisfying division championships," he said. "We were picked to finish third or fourth in our division, and we've come so far in the last couple of months. This one, a lot of us were a little skeptical about, and when, and if, it does happen, you'll see a playoff-type celebration."
HAMPTON UPDATE: Mike Hampton threw in the bullpen Tuesday and the team is keeping its fingers crossed that he can start Saturday's game against the Marlins. Whether he does depends on how his left knee responds today to the 15 minutes he spent on the mound.
The left-hander, who suffered a cartilage tear in his knee last week, had fluid drained from it Saturday.
Manager Bobby Cox indicated that if Hampton can't go against Florida, rookie Jose Capellan likely will make the start.
THROWING AGAIN: Horacio Ramirez stayed behind while the team hit the road last week to continue strengthening his left shoulder. The lefty, on the disabled list since May 26 with shoulder tendinitis, threw for about five minutes from a bullpen mound Tuesday, the first time he's been on the hill since a rehab start with Class AAA Richmond Aug. 30. He indicated he was encouraged by the workout, though he only threw at about 80 percent.
Ramirez hopes to pitch again this season, though the dwindling number of games and his condition makes it doubtful.
"I'm kind of running out of time," he said. "I still think I can contribute in some way if I'm 100 percent or close to it. But I won't go out there if it means I'm hurting the team or hurting my future."
Reach Bill Zack at BZack30143@aol.com.
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