We’re still left without baseball, now roughly a month into what was supposed to be the 2020 MLB season. Talking points and topics have begun to run extremely thin, and other than the conclusion of Rob Manfred’s investigation into the Red Sox sign-stealing scandal and Thursday’s news that the MLB The Show player’s league will be broadcasted nationally, there hasn’t been much news pertaining to baseball this week. As usual, even when there is an MLB regular season, the headlines this time of the year are dominated by the NFL Draft.
However, at least for those of us Braves’ fans, Friday came with a bit of significance — it was Chipper Jones’s 48th birthday.
Happy 48th Birthday to Chipper Jones, born this day in Deland, FL. pic.twitter.com/wNF0GSDUkL
— Baseball In Pics (@baseballinpix) April 25, 2020
And in honor of perhaps the most beloved player to ever play for the Braves, I’ve put together a recap of his five greatest postseason games (per Baseball-Reference WPA) during his 19-year career.
#5. The bunt-single (1996)
At 24-years-old, the 1996 season was Chipper’s first of eight All-Star campaigns and his second full year in the bigs (after barely losing the 1995 NL Rookie of the Year award the season before). Chipper went nuts at the plate during the ’96 regular season, slugging 30 home runs with 110 RBI (the latter a team-high) — good for 6.3 fWAR. If it weren’t for 25-year-old Ryan Klesko breaking out that year, Chipper would’ve led the Braves in homers as well.
After winning the NL East and posting a 96-66 record, the Bobby Cox led Braves swept the LA Dodgers in the NLDS, earning an LCS bid versus former Brave Ron Gant and the Cardinals (Gant led St. Louis with 30 homers in ’96). The Braves eventually won the NLCS in seven games, featuring a 14-0 win in Game 5 and a 15-0 win to take the series in Game 7, before they were finally put out by the Yankees in six games in the World Series. However, Chipper’s best performance came in Game 1 of that LCS against the Cards in Atlanta.
- 1996 NLCS GM 1 vs. Cardinals
- Braves won 4-2
- Chipper:4-for-4, R, SB (0.243 WPA)
It was a solid pitcher’s duel between the Cards’ Andy Benes and the Braves’ John Smoltz, as both starters made it to at least the sixth inning and combined to punch out 12 with just two runs allowed apiece. Neither team homered in the game, but several timely hits were just as significant, including Chipper’s bunt-single (his fourth hit of the game) off reliever Mark Petkovsek in the 8th inning.
With the game tied at 2-2, Chipper’s perfect bunt moved Mark Lemke from first to second, allowing Cox to insert Andruw Jones as a pinch-runner and steal third the very next at-bat. After a Fred McGriff infield fly-out and an intentional walk to pinch-hitter Terry Pendleton, Javy Lopez came to the plate and slapped a 2-run single to straightaway center, scoring both Andruw and Chipper to put the Braves up 4-2 for an eventual win.
#4. Fair ball… Braves win! (1998)
To this day, the 1998 season is special. The Braves won a franchise-high 106 games that year, which was sandwiched in between two other 100-win seasons (101 wins in 1997 and 103 in 1999). First baseman Andres Galarraga led the Braves with 44 homers and 121 RBI in ’98, but Chipper (26-years-old) led the way with a .313 AVG and .404 OBP, on his way to 7.1 fWAR and a 9th-place finish in the NL MVP vote (he would win the MVP award the very next season). This was the beginning of Chipper’s peak as a Hall of Famer, as he would average 6.5 WAR over the next five seasons, including a 5-year average (1998-02) of 36 home runs, 106 RBI and 14 stolen bases per season.
After winning the NL East by 18 games, the Braves steamrolled the Cubs in the ’98 NLDS in three games, before falling to Greg Vaughn and the Padres in the NLCS; although, Chipper’s heroics in Game 2 of that Division Series versus the Cubs sent Turner Field into a craze.
- 1998 NLCS GM 2 vs. Cubs
- Braves won 2-1
- Chipper:1-for-4, RBI, BB, 3 K (0.247 WPA)
It’s crazy that this game is one of Chipper’s best in the postseason, considering he scored a hat trick with three strikeouts. Sometimes it’s not about how many hits you get, but when you get them.
With the Cubs’ Kevin Tapani and the Braves’ Cy Young winner that season, Tom Glavine, battling away, the score stayed tied at zero until Chicago’s Lance Johnson scored Mickey Morandini on a groundout to give the Cubbies a 1-0 lead in the sixth inning. However, Javy Lopez came through again with a game-tying solo-homer in the bottom of the 9th to put the game in extra innings.
The Cubs threatened in the top of the 10th, but the Braves’ bullpen held firm, bringing up the bottom of the lineup. Bobby Cox inserted Greg Colbrunn to pinch-hit for the pitcher, who lined out, but Walt Weiss drew a walk, and Tony Graffanino reached on an error, giving Chipper a chance to win it against Cubs’ reliever Terry Mulholland.
With just a 29% win expectancy for the Braves, and runners on first and second, Chipper swung at the very first pitch by Mulholland — a 90 mph fastball right down the middle — and slapped a line-drive that one-hopped the left-field wall… Braves win.
#3. The impossible matchup (2001)
After six-straight seasons with 90 wins or more — and three with 100+ — the Braves had a bit of an off-year in 2001, winning just 88 games, though still, of course, taking the NL East division. Chipper led the team in home runs (38), AVG (.330), OBP (.427), SLG (.605), and he had a partner in the lineup as Andruw Jones broke out with 34 long balls and 104 RBI of his own.
After taking home another division title, this time by just two games over the surging Phillies, the Braves again swept their NLDS opponent — the Jeff Bagwell and Lance Berkman led Astros, outscoring Houston 14-6 in those three games. Although it only took the Braves five games to fall to the Diamondbacks in the NLCS, as Luis Gonzales, Curt Schilling, and Randy Johnson led Arizona to a World Series later that month. Still, Chipper came through in a big way during the Braves Division Series versus the Astros, getting a big hit against a pitcher he had always struggled against.
- 2001 NLDS GM 1 vs. Astros
- Braves won 7-4
- Chipper:2-for-4, HR, 3 RBI, K (0.314 WPA)
The Braves jumped out to a 2-0 lead after four innings, both coming from Brian Jordan as Atlanta tallied seven hits against Houston’s starter, Wade Miller. Greg Maddux got the start for the Braves and was sharp most of the outing but began to wear down towards the end, allowing a couple of runs and a homer. Still, the Braves were in good shape as they entered their half of the 8th inning, down 3-2. After a Keith Lockhart double to start the 8th, Ken Caminiti struck out looking. With one out and a runner on second, the Braves’ Marcus Giles singled off the Astros’ Michael Jackson, scoring Lockhart and tying the game.
With Chipper due up and Giles one first (which happened a lot in big games during Chipper’s peak years), Houston made a pitching change, deciding to go with reliever Billy Wagner, who Chipper was hit-less against in his last eight at-bats, including six strikeouts. Wagner offered him a first-pitch fastball on the outside part of the plate, and somehow Chipper pulled it for a home run over the left-field wall. Braves lead 6-3.
Later in the game, Andruw Jones homered as well, increasing the Braves’ advantage before Houston’s Vinny Castilla also hit a solo shot in the final inning off John Smoltz; however, the Braves still managed the win.
#2: A debut to remember (1995)
Rewinding to the 1995 season (the year the Braves won their World Series), the team finished 90-54 in the regular season and was still led by Fred McGriff and David Justice on offense, though a 23-year-old Chipper still managed 23 home runs and a .265 AVG.
The NL East was horrible that season, with the Mets and Phillies both winning just 69 games apiece to tie for second place behind the Braves — a whopping 21 games back. The ’95 campaign also featured Greg Maddux’s fourth consecutive NL Cy Young award, an accolade he competed for on an annual basis for over a decade. Truly remarkable.
With the Braves’ prolific offense and dominant starting rotation, they flew through the first two rounds of the playoffs, beating the Rockies in four games and sweeping the Reds in the NL Pennant, before winning a close World Series against Albert Belle and the Indians in six games. The Braves’ pitching during that series was incredible, holding guys like Belle, Manny Ramirez, and Jim Thome to sub-.250 averages. But Chipper’s big game came in the late-innings of Game 1 during the Rockies series.
- 1995 NLDS GM 1 vs. Rockies
- Braves won 5-4
- Chipper:2-for-5, 2 HR, 2 RBI (0.382 WPA)
Remember, this was Chipper’s postseason debut as a major leaguer. After playing in eight games down the stretch in 1993 (he didn’t make the playoff roster that year) and missing all of 1994 with an injury, 1995 was Chipper’s first taste of full-season baseball and the playoffs.
The Rockies started Kevin Ritz in Game 1, a righty with 11 wins and a 4.21 ERA during the ’95 regular season. The Braves countered with Greg Maddux, who went 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA during the season (led MLB in wins and ERA). The two swapped clean frames until the top of the third, when Atlanta’s Marquis Grissom took Ritz deep for a solo homer. Chipper grounded into a double play in his first at-bat.
The Rockies scored in the 4th off Maddux, as Ellis Burks nocked in Larry Walker with a sac-fly to right field, and Vinny Castilla slugged a two-run homer, putting Colorado up 3-1. Chipper lined out to left in his second at-bat.
But in the 6th, Chipper swung at the first pitch by Ritz (like he did so many times in his career) and belted it over the right-field wall for a homer, pushing the Braves within one. Then, Luis Polonia scored David Justice on a fielder’s choice three batters later to tie the game at three apiece.
The Braves took the lead in the eighth inning, thanks to Dwight Smith’s RBI single, scoring Ryan Klesko; however, the play of the inning was Chipper’s diving stop at third to save a run.
The Rockies’ Ellis Burks would tie the game one batter later, doubling to left and scoring Dante Bichette, but without Chipper’s outstanding grab, the Braves would’ve been down instead of tied 4-4.
The very next inning, after both Grissom and Mark Lemke grounded out, Chipper took Curt Leskanic deep for his second homer of the game, putting the Braves up for good.
#1. Both sides of the plate (2003)
The 2003 season was the very tail end of the Braves’ dynasty as their division title run would end just three seasons later in 2006, though in the meantime, the Braves still racked up the wins, finishing 101-61 in ’03, winning the NL East by ten games. That season catcher Javy Lopez went crazy and slugged 43 homers (with a .328 AVG) and posted a career-high 6.8 fWAR. The lineup was stacked from top to bottom, with all of Lopez, Chipper, Marcus Giles, Vinny Castilla, Andruw Jones, and Garry Sheffield slugging 20+ homers. In fact, Sheffield, at 34-years-old, totaled 39 homers, 132 RBI (team-high), and a .330 AVG — a 7.3 fWAR season (his best ever). Even infielder Mark DeRosa — who got his first crack at 100+ games in the majors in ’03 — slapped six homers and hit .263.
The Braves starting rotation was past it’s prime, though. Greg Maddux was 37-years-old (granted, he still made 36 starts and finished with a 3.96 ERA) and the staff was extremely thin, featuring Russ Ortiz (3.81 ERA), Mike Hampton (3.84 ERA), a 23-year-old Horacio Ramirez (4.00 ERA) and Shane Reynolds (5.43 ERA). This wasn’t the rotation of the 90s, though John Smoltz was a certified killer in the Braves’ bullpen at that point. He led MLB with 55 saves the previous season, and in ’03 he converted 45 saves and posted a ridiculous 1.12 ERA (!) with 10.2 K/9 and 1.1 BB/9.
The Braves wound up losing to Sammy Sosa and the Cubs in the NLDS, though that Chicago team had much more than just a 40-HR Sosa. The Cubs featured a three-headed monster of Carlos Zambrano, Mark Prior, and Kerry Wood in the rotation… all in their prime, and they were dominant (Wood and Prior finished the Division Series with a combined 1.38 ERA in three total starts). However, Chipper had a huge Game 4.
- 2003 NLDS GM 4 @ Cubs
- Braves won 6-4
- Chipper:2-for-3, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 BB (0.343 WPA)
Neither starter lasted past the 5th inning, as the Braves’ Ortiz wound up walking four and allowing two runs, and the Cubs’ Matt Clement surrendered four runs on eight hits. After Moises Alou put Chicago on top with an RBI double in the third, Atlanta’s Darren Bragg answered in the Braves’ half with an RBI groundout to lock the two teams back up at one. Ortiz pitched a clean 4th inning, bringing the top of the order back up for the Braves in the fifth.
To start the fifth, Rafael Furcal singled, and Giles hit a grounder to the left side forcing Furcal out at second. With Giles at first, Chipper came up as a lefty hitter and crushed a Clement pitch that was left up in the zone (this time swinging at the second pitch) over the left-center wall, putting the Braves up 3-1. Four batters later, Castilla added on, singling to left and scoring Andruw Jones and increasing the Braves lead to 4-1.
The Cub’s Eric Karros homered in the 6th to make it a two-run game (4-2), but Chipper wasn’t done. In the 8th, this time facing a lefty-pitcher (Mark Guthrie), Chipper came to bat as a righty and worked a 3-2 count. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat (with Giles on base again), Chipper stretched out and pulled an outside pitch over the left-center wall just a few feet away from his first homer earlier in the game. Braves lead 6-2. The Cubs added a couple of runs, one in the 8th from a solo-homer by Karros and one in the 9th, from an RBI double by Damian Miller (off Smoltz), but the Braves squeaked out the win thanks to Chipper’s two homers and four RBI (from both sides of the plate).
Happy Birthday, Chipper Jones!