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MVP! Braves' Jones is finally living up to potential, putting up numbers

ATLANTA — When Andruw Jones comes to bat at Turner Field, the repetitive chant begins.


In the late innings, it can be downright deafening.


Nine years after his electrifying World Series debut at Yankee Stadium, Jones is finally having the sort of dominating season that everyone expected from the Atlanta Braves center fielder.

Jones has worked his way onto the short list of candidates for National League MVP, which appears to be a three-way race that also includes St. Louis slugger Albert Pujols and Derrek Lee of the Chicago Cubs.

"It means you've been consistent and put up the numbers that people look at and say you've been carrying your team," Jones said. "That's what the MVP is. You've taken your team to the playoffs. You've taken your team to the World Series."

Indeed, it's hard to find a player who's been more valuable to his team than the 28-year-old Jones. With him, the Braves went into Thursday's off day with a 6 1/2-game lead in the NL East, cruising toward their 14th straight division title. Without him, that amazing streak would likely be in its final days.

No Atlanta player has more than 16 homers or 66 RBIs, which means Jones doesn't have a lot of protection in the batting order. The starting rotation has been plagued by injuries, while the bullpen has struggled to find a closer.

Through all the problems, there's Jones, having the most brilliant season of his career. After Wednesday's games, he was leading the majors with 45 homers — five more than anyone else — and the NL with 114 RBIs, 10 ahead of his closest challenger.

But the MVP award is hardly a lock. Pujols and Lee are having amazing years, as well.

Pujols was second in the league in hitting (.337), third in homers (37) and second in RBIs (104). Lee had the NL's top average (.344), was second in homers (40) and third in RBIs (101).

Jones and Pujols have the advantage of playing on division-leading teams that are likely to make the playoffs, while Lee is hampered by the underachieving Cubs. Pujols might get a push for his first MVP award after perennially finishing behind Barry Bonds.

Jones is hitting .270, not on par with Pujols and Lee. Then again, the Atlanta player should get additional points for his defense, which is expected to bring an eighth straight Gold Glove.

"I think he's a landslide winner," Braves teammates Chipper Jones said. "You're talking about a guy who plays Gold Glove defense, the best center fielder in the game, bar none. Everybody's just been waiting for him to turn the corner offensively, and now he's done that."

Indeed, fair or not, this is what was projected for Andruw Jones when he came up to Braves as a 19-year phenom, having worked his way from Class A to the big leagues over the course of the 1996 season.

That fall, in the NL championship series, he became the youngest player to hit a postseason homer, eclipsing a guy named Mickey Mantle. Then, facing the Yankees at one of baseball's most hallowed shrines, Jones became just the second player to homer in his first two World Series at-bats.

Jones put up good numbers over the next eight seasons. He averaged nearly 31 homers and 94 RBIs. He never played fewer than 154 games. He was generally recognized as the best outfielder in the big leagues, a regular on the nightly highlight shows with his spectacular catches.

Still, there was always a perception that Jones wasn't living up to his enormous potential — a viewpoint only enhanced when he dropped off to 29 homers, 91 RBIs and a .261 average last season, with a career-worst 147 strikeouts.

"If there was ever any . . . question about what kind of player he was going to be, it was on the offensive side of the ball," said former teammate Tom Glavine, who now pitches for the New York Mets. "There was always a feeling that offensively, he was capable of putting up monster numbers."

After the disappointment of 2004, Jones decided some changes were needed. Nothing major, but he knew he was capable of more.

Jones looked at videotapes of himself in the minors and his early days in the big league, noticing that his stance had gradually changed. Ever so slightly, he had been bringing his legs closer together, to the point that it affected his discipline at the plate.

Jones began to widen his stance during private workouts over the winter. He continued the process at spring training, working with hitting coach Terry Pendleton.

"Really, he just spread his stance out, shortened his stride and a little patience always helps," Pendleton said. "That's been the major difference with him."

Jones is hardly a contact hitter, but he has cut his strikeouts to 97. With 22 games remaining, he is on pace for 112 Ks — which would be his fewest since 2000, when he batted a career-high .303. The wider stance keeps him from moving his head as much, which keeps him from pulling off pitches and looking foolish, especially on breaking balls.

"I have a better idea about the pitches," Jones said. "It's about locking in on a specific pitch, and when you get it, don't miss it."

Jones may not win the MVP, but it will be hard for anyone to say he hasn't lived up to expectations.

"If this year doesn't satisfy people, then Andruw is fighting a battle he's never going to win," Chipper Jones said. "We always thought he could hit 40 homers and drive in 120. It was just a matter of putting it all together."