Notes: Chipper thinking of Wild Card
Cox praises Wickman; Renteria close to returning
ATLANTA -- Chipper Jones still has aspirations to celebrate a division title with his teammates this year. But while taking things one step at a time, the Braves veteran third baseman currently has his eyes on the Wild Card race.Entering Thursday night's series finale against the Giants, the Braves trailed the first-place Mets by 3 1/2 games in the National League East race. But they were just a half-game behind the front-running San Diego Padres for the NL Wild Card. "We've got our eye on San Diego right now," Jones said. "We'll worry about the Mets a little later. We just need to keep going out and playing solid." While winning 26 of their past 44 games, the Braves have encountered a streak that matches the one they experienced at the beginning of the year. At 26-18 at the close of play on May 20, they trailed the Mets by 2 1/2 games and owned a two-game lead in the Wild Card race. Their low point of the season came over the course of their next 32 games, during which a 12-20 mark dropped them 4 1/2 games behind the Mets and 1 1/2 games behind the Phillies in the NL East race. They also had fallen five games back in the Wild Card race. Over the course of the 44 games that have followed, the Braves have spent 14 days, including seven of the past 14, in third place in the division standings. In addition, the closest they've gotten to the Mets during this span was 1 1/2 games, and they haven't been that close since July 16. "We've been back and forth with Philly quite a bit over the last week or two," Jones said. "We just need to keep throwing up wins, keep the pressure on them and get some separation on them. We've got to keep our eye on San Diego and keep forcing them to win. Eventually, we'll get there if we keep winning ballgames." Wick impressing Cox: Although he blew a save opportunity for the second time in his past six opportunities Tuesday night, closer Bob Wickman has garnered plenty of recent praise from Braves manager Bobby Cox. "He's pitched great," Cox said. "His stuff is good." As the numbers prove, the stuff Wickman has utilized since joining the Braves has provided results very similar to the ones he experienced during his career-best 45-save season with the Indians in 2005. In the 75 appearances Wickman has made for the Braves, he's seen opponents compile a .250 batting average and .308 on-base percentage. In the 64 appearances he made in 2005, opponents batted .247 and reached base at a .310 clip. Actually there's ability to argue that Wickman has had even better stuff in Atlanta than he did during his career-best season. In the 68 1/3 innings he's completed for the Braves, he's registered 59 strikeouts, issued 21 walks and surrendered just four homers. In the 62 innings he completed in 2005, the big right-hander registered 41 strikeouts, issued 21 walks and allowed nine homers. Until Tuesday night, Wickman still hadn't allowed an earned run at Turner Field this year. In 23 home appearances, he's worked 21 2/3 innings and posted a 0.42 ERA. Opponents have hit .167 against him and produced a .253 on-base percentage. "I don't know how much better you can get," Cox said. "That's pretty amazing." What makes this more amazing is the fact that Wickman has posted a 7.53 ERA in the 20 2/3 innings he's completed on the road this year. In the process, opponents have hit .340 and reached base at a .415 clip. Renteria nearing return: Edgar Renteria did some light jogging in the outfield Thursday morning and could be back in the Braves lineup early next week. Over the next few days, he'll further test his sprained right ankle with some baseball-specific activities. Heyward's impressive debut: It didn't take Jason Heyward long to prove why some believe he'll become one of the game's premier power hitters. Making his professional debut for the Gulf Coast League Braves on Thursday afternoon, the 6-foot-5, 230-pound, 18-year-old outfielder drilled an opposite-field homer that traveled an estimated 400 feet. It came during his third plate appearance. Heyward, the 14th overall selection in this year's Draft, agreed to a $1.7 million signing bonus Sunday. Hudson OK: After winning his eighth straight decision with an eight-inning effort Wednesday, Tim Hudson indicated that the Russ Ortiz second-inning comebacker he took off his shin didn't do any damage. In fact, he joked that his 2-year-old son Kade has hit him harder. When Hudson returned to the stadium Thursday, he admitted that he was a little sore. With his regular array of sinkers, the right-hander is susceptible to such comebackers. This led one of his teammates to playfully leave some small shin guards in his locker. "He's as tough as they come," Cox said of Hudson. "He and [Greg] Maddux probably have gotten hit more than any other pitcher I've ever had because they sink the ball and get ground balls." Coming up: The Braves will begin a three-game series against the Diamondbacks at Turner Field on Friday night at 7:35 p.m. ET. They'll send Lance Cormier (0-2, 13.50 ERA) to the mound to oppose Brandon Webb (12-8, 2.77).
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.