This time, the Atlanta Braves held onto their big lead and locked up a playoff trip with plenty of time to spare.
It couldn’t have felt any sweeter for retiring star Chipper Jones.
Freddie Freeman hit a two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth inning to put Atlanta back in the postseason with a 4-3 victory over the Miami Marlins on Tuesday night.
Freeman’s dramatic drive off Mike Dunn clinched at least a National League wild-card berth for the Braves, who squandered a big lead in the wild-card race with a huge collapse last September.
”They took the attitude last year to try and hang on,” Jones said. ”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.”
Jones, who plans to retire at the end of the season, led off the ninth with a double. He moved to third on a wild pitch by Dunn (0-3) and scored when Freeman’s 22nd homer easily cleared the center-field wall.
”There was never any doubt,” Jones said during the clubhouse celebration. ”We knew that last year was somewhat of a fluke.”
Craig Kimbrel (3-1) worked a scoreless inning to help the Braves win their 22nd straight game started by Kris Medlen. The streak is the longest in the majors since the New York Yankees won 22 consecutive games started by Whitey Ford in 1950 and `53.
Last year’s September flop was fresh on Medlen’s mind.
”You can’t really win consistently until you lose,” Medlen said. ”Losing’s a big part of being able to win.”
Returning to the postseason helps wipe away some of last season’s frustration for the Braves, who blew an 8 1/2-game lead in the wild-card standings and finished September 9-18. They missed the playoffs after one of the biggest meltdowns in baseball history.
This year, Atlanta cruised most of the way and wrapped up a postseason spot with more than a week remaining in the regular season. And the Braves still have a chance to catch first-place Washington in the NL East. They moved within four games of the Nationals, who lost to Philadelphia 6-3, with eight to play.
”It makes it all worth it. I’m happier for these guys because they worked hard,” Jones said.
While he was being interviewed on television, the 40-year-old slugger was doused with bubbly and beer by teammates in a jubilant clubhouse.
”I am so cold right now!” he said.
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 will return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
Jones went 1 for 2 with two runs and a sacrifice fly that made it 1-all in the second. He is batting .296 and has 14 homers with 63 RBI. His leadership has been unmistakable in a season that included a final All-Star appearance.
The Braves tied it 1-all in the second. Jones walked, moved to second on Freeman’s single and scored from second 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.
Freeman said he expected Jones to lead off the ninth with a hit.
”He’s done it all year,” the 23-year-old Freeman said. ”That’s what he’s a Hall of Famer for. He got the rally started today.”
Eovaldi was trying to win for the first time in six starts. He allowed four hits, two runs and two walks in six innings. He struck out eight.
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.
”Yeah, I mean, we’ve lost a lot of games and to lose that game like that is heartbreaking,” Dunn said, ”especially with the way the team played today.”
Medlen did not win for the first time in nine starts, allowing five hits, three runs, no walks and 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 were just a backdrop, though, to the bigger picture of Jones returning to the playoffs in his final season with Atlanta.
”We’re not done yet,” he said. ”We’ve got one more step that we’ve got our eyes on.”
NOTES: Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said MRI results on CF Michael Bourn’s left thumb revealed no structural damage. Gonzalez hopes Bourn can return to the lineup Wednesday. … Reed Johnson started in CF and hit leadoff for Bourn. … Gonzalez spoke with Jones before the game and both decided that the 3B wants to start the last six remaining regular-season home games. … Jones’ double gave him 2,724 hits to tie Roberto Alomar for 57th place on the career list – and for fifth among switch-hitters. … Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen said RF Giancarlo Stanton, who has missed the last six games with a sore left ribcage, is lobbying to return to the lineup soon. Stanton took batting practice before the game. … The Marlins were waiting for MRI results on OF Justin Ruggiano, who’s been out since last Friday with a right shoulder sprain. … Atlanta SS Paul Janish is trying to rehab his left shoulder in hopes of returning for the division series next month if Atlanta is still playing.