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Must C Chipper: Chipper makes season debut in style

HOUSTON -- Two weeks shy of his 40th birthday, Chipper Jones is no longer an MVP-caliber player capable of carrying his team on a daily basis over the long haul. But there's no doubt that the Braves' lineup still takes on a different feel whenever he is a part of it.

After stumbling through the first four games of the season, the Braves welcomed Jones back to the lineup on Tuesday night and found reason to celebrate for the first time in more than six months. The veteran third baseman showed no signs of rust as he dazzled with his glove and provided a much-needed spark with a tiebreaking third-inning home run that propelled his team to a 6-4 win over the Astros.

"I'm not going to say I was the spark," Jones said. "Obviously, the two-run homer was a big lift. But I'd much rather be a calming influence. I just want [my teammates] to look down there, see me and know I'm going to put up some good at-bats and hopefully make the play when it's hit to me. If they feed off of that, then great. But my nickname is not Sparky."

Along with avoiding an 0-5 start, the Braves snapped a nine-game losing streak that dated back to the late-season collapse that doomed last year's playoff hopes.

"It was just fun to get back in there, contribute and be somewhat of a calming influence," said Jones, who was just a sophomore in high school the last time (1988) the Braves had started a season with four consecutive losses.

Michael Bourn's speed helped the Braves produce the decisive run with a couple of seventh-inning groundouts and Eric Hinske provided some breathing room with a two-out RBI single in the eighth. The resulting two-run advantage proved to be enough for Jonny Venters and Craig Kimbrel, who kept the Astros scoreless in the final two innings.

Making his first appearance since blowing a one-run ninth-inning lead in last year's must-win season finale, Kimbrel allowed the first two batters he faced in the ninth to reach. Chris Johnson quieted the threat by grounding into a double play. Then in fitting fashion, the game concluded with Jones fielding Chris Snyder's sharp grounder behind third before firing a game-ending strike to first.

The bottom of the first had started with former Braves center fielder Jordan Schafer trying to sneak a bunt down the third-base line. But anticipating the bunt, Jones reacted quickly, made his patented barehanded stab and then fired a perfect throw that beat Schafer to first base.

"[Jones] had a big night, but even if he doesn't have that big night, it just spreads out that lineup a little bit," Astros manager Brad Mills said. "It definitely gives them a little more weaponry to work with."

Making his first appearance since March 20, Jones certainly did not look like a guy who had totaled just 25 at-bats in the exhibition season before undergoing surgery to repair torn meniscus in his left knee on March 26. He singled in his first at-bat and then victimized Astros starter Kyle Weiland with a two-run homer that sailed over the right-field wall.

Jones had said a couple of hours earlier that his primary concern was the fact that he had not regained his timing to hit top-flight fastballs. But it was his choice to not go on the rehab assignment that would have at least allowed him to see the kind of live pitching mere mortals need to see after not playing in a game for three weeks.

"I'm glad we didn't make [Jones] go on that rehab assignment," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "I think today, he won our game single-handedly -- home run, base hit and a couple nice plays defensively. I think today he made a statement that Spring Training is too long. I think next year we'll show up the 20th of March, play 10 games and then say, 'Go get them.' But the stuff he does, nobody else can do."

While Jones will conclude his career this year, Tyler Pastornicky is experiencing the beginning of his and making some solid first impressions with his plate discipline. The rookie shortstop gave the Braves a 4-1 lead when he drilled his first career home run over the left-field wall to begin the fourth. The drive came at the end of a 10-pitch at-bat.

Braves starter Tommy Hanson was nowhere near as dominant as he had been while going 3-0 with a 0.97 ERA in five previous starts against the Astros. The big right-hander recorded a pair of strikeouts in a perfect first inning, then needed at least 22 pitches to complete three of his final four innings.

But while battling shoddy command during a 101-pitch outing, Hanson used eight strikeouts to help him limit the Astros to just two runs in five innings. He recorded consecutive bases-loaded strikeouts of Brian Bogusevic and Johnson to end the third.

Instead of talking about how he had struggled to command his fastball, Hanson was much more interested in talking about the significant role Jones played while helping the Braves put an end to a frustrating skid that had carried on far too long.

"It was amazing to see what he did today," Hanson said.

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