By George Henry/The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — Chipper Jones would love nothing more than to end his stellar career as a champion, and the Atlanta Braves are doing their best to help the retiring third baseman attain that goal.
When Jones led off the bottom of the ninth inning Tuesday night with a double, his teammates were hardly surprised.
“Chipper’s last year — it couldn’t be a better story,” catcher Brian McCann said. “We were all saying that he’s going to do something special.”
The switch-hitter did just that, knocking Mike Dunn’s 95 mph fastball to the opposite field in right-center and stirring the excitement at Turner Field. Freddie Freeman, the next batter, followed with a two-run homer that gave the Braves a 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins and sent Atlanta back to the playoffs.
The wild finish began a celebration as Freeman’s drive off Dunn clinched at least a National League wild-card berth — a major turnaround for a club that squandered a big lead in the wild-card race last year with a huge September collapse.
Jones, the longtime star who plans to retire at the end of the season, took a simple approach as he stepped into the batter’s box against Dunn, a former Atlanta teammate.
“I knew in the ninth inning what I’ve got to do,” Jones said. “I had to split the gap perfectly.”
Most of the announced crowd of 25,632 stood for Jones’ ninth-inning at-bat. The fans roared when he pulled into second base standing up, and they cheered louder when a wild pitch by Dunn (0-3) advanced him to third.
When Freeman’s 22nd homer easily cleared the wall in center field, an entire year of frustration seemed to vanish.
“For us to win this game right now, 2012 has come full circle,” Freeman said. “It’s a great moment for this team, but we’ve still got a long ways to go because we’re not done with the division yet.”
This year, Atlanta cruised most of the way and wrapped up a postseason spot with more than a week to spare.
And the Braves still have a chance to catch first-place Washington in the NL East. The Braves showed good focus, beating Miami 3-0 on Wednesday night as Martin Prado homered and Paul Maholm combined with three relievers on a six-hitter.
The Braves remained four games behind first-place Washington in the NL East. The Nationals beat the Phillies 8-4.
Atlanta hasn’t won the NL East since 2005, the last of their 14 consecutive division titles under former manager Bobby Cox.
“We’ve still got a chance to win some more games and maybe something else,” second-year skipper Fredi Gonzalez said. “I know it’s going to be a difficult task, but we’re going to keep going.”
Craig Kimbrel (3-1) worked a scoreless ninth inning to help the Braves win their 22nd straight game started by Kris Medlen. The streak is the longest in the majors since the Yankees won 22 consecutive games started by Whitey Ford in 1950 and ’53.
Returning to the postseason helps wipe away some of last season’s frustration for the Braves, who blew an 8½-game lead in the wild-card standings by going 9-18 in September. They missed the playoffs after one of the biggest collapses in baseball history.
Four of the five NL playoff spots are secured. In addition to Atlanta, Washington, Cincinnati and San Francisco have all punched their tickets to the postseason.
The second-place Braves have a comfortable cushion in the wild-card race, and St. Louis leads the chase for the league’s second wild card.
The Braves, who will return to the postseason for the first time since 2010, have relied on Kimbrel, an emerging Cy Young candidate, while other youngsters like Jason Heyward and Freeman have emerged as productive everyday players.
Leadoff hitter Michael Bourn struggled in the second half, but still ranks third in the majors with 39 stolen bases.
Medlen and Minor helped stabilize a rotation that was hurt by Brandon Beachy’s season-ending injury and inconsistent performances from Tommy Hanson.
Jones went 1 for 2 with two runs and a sacrifice fly. He is batting .296 and has 14 homers with 63 RBIs. His leadership has been unmistakable in a season that included a final All-Star appearance.
The Braves tied it 1-all in the second when Jones walked, moved to second on Freeman’s single and scored on Dan Uggla’s single.
After Martin Prado’s two-out triple in the third, Marlins starter Nathan Eovaldi struck out Heyward, but Heyward tripled with one out in the sixth and scored on Jones’ sacrifice fly to give the Braves a 2-1 lead.
Eovaldi was trying to win for the first time in six starts. He allowed four hits, two runs and two walks in six innings with eight strikeouts.
A.J. Ramos got the first two outs for Miami in the seventh before Dan Jennings struck out pinch-hitter Jeff Baker with a runner on first. Heath Bell faced the minimum in the eighth for the Marlins, and Eric O’Flaherty did the same in the bottom half of the inning for Atlanta.
Donovan Solano hit his first career homer in the second to make it 1-0 and followed with a two-run shot in the seventh to make it 3-2.
Medlen did not win for the first time in nine starts, allowing five hits, three runs, no walks while striking out eight. The right-hander began the game with a 15-0 record over his last 27 starts dating to May 31, 2009.
Those numbers, however, held little weight considering how the ninth inning dramatically unfolded.
“We knew last year was a fluke,” Jones said. “They took the attitude last year to try and hang on. This year we took the bull by the horns. We’re shooting for the stars. We’re still shooting for the division until they close us out.”