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Jones helps Braves ready for final playoff push

HOWIE RUMBERG
AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP) – Chipper Jones rocked back in his swivel chair in the nearly empty visitors’ clubhouse while the Atlanta Braves were preparing for the opener of a nine-game road trip that could determine their playoff fate.

Relegated to rehabbing his injured left knee, the 17-year veteran made his contribution to the pennant race earlier in the day: Jones gave his foundering teammates a pep talk.

“I was trying to get across to the guys for the last two weeks we’ve got to focus – focus on every pitch, every play, on every at-bat,” Jones said Friday before the Braves played the New York Mets. “I think if we did that, we’re good enough to take care of business.”

What seemed like a certainty in late July when they led the NL East by seven games, a final trip to the playoffs for retiring manager Bobby Cox has become a struggle.

The offensive troubles began when Jones went out with a knee injury on Aug. 11, but the No. 3 hitter won’t accept that as an excuse.

“I told ’em I don’t want to hear about injuries, I don’t want to hear that,” Jones said. “You’ve got an opportunity and none of the guys realize the opportunity.

“They realize it now,” he said with emphasis.

The Braves are coming off a 3-4 homestand that left them three games behind the Philadelphia Phillies in the division and a half-game up on the San Diego Padres in the wild-card race. The Braves have the best home record in baseball (52-23) but are a paltry 31-41 on the road.

“We’re beyond scoreboard watching. We’ve got to take care of business ourselves,” Jones said. “The one thing the Phillies do is they take advantage of teams they should beat on paper.”

The Braves just dropped two of three to the last-place Washington Nationals.

A strong start against the Mets, coming off a four-game sweep against lowly Pittsburgh, should give them some momentum for trips to Philadelphia and Washington.

“Hopefully you get a couple of wins under your belt on the road, which is something that has not been the norm here,” Jones said.

In honor of the team and Cox’s last regular-season trip, Delta Airlines gave the Braves a festive send-off. In a surprise to Cox, a red 6 – the manager’s number – was painted on the side of the plane, and executives and airline employees were on hand for the departure.

Cox appreciates that Jones travels with the team.

“It’s good to have him around,” said Cox, who wasn’t around very long Friday night, getting ejected in second inning. “He’s always in the ballgame and rooting guys on. He’s going to be a surefire Hall of Famer. They listen to him.”

Jones, who has went to the playoffs in 11 straight seasons ending in 2005, said not being able to contribute this time of year is “heartwrenching.” He has taken some solace in helping his teammates prepare for the final 15 games.

It’s also given the 38-year-old Jones a glimpse of a possible future in coaching.

Matt Diaz, for one, appreciates Jones’ efforts.

“He’s definitely been one of our team leaders all year so that’s his role,” Diaz said.