KISSIMMEE, Fla. (AP) - Chipper Jones' knee feels fine - and so does his swing.
Coming off knee surgery last August, Jones has steadily made progress this spring. He went 3 for 3 on Sunday in the Atlanta Braves' 5-3 victory over a Houston Astros split squad.
The Braves' third baseman raised his Grapefruit League average to .420. Jones leads the team with three homers and 11 RBIs.
``His swing is getting better and better,' Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. ``Hopefully we can put it on ice until we open the season.'
``I'm ready to get started right now,' Jones keeps repeating.
Jones, who turns 39 on April 24, will have to wait until March 31 in Washington to officially make his comeback complete. He's already erased any doubts, though.
``There were a few days that the knee bothered him, but that was back in February,' Gonzalez said.
Jones insisted: ``My knee is not an issue at all now.'
In addition to excelling at the plate, the switch-hitter is making all the plays in the field. He got an out on another barehanded pickup and throw against the Astros.
``Chipper looks phenomenal,' Braves starter Derek Lowe said. ``It doesn't look like he's hampered at all.'
Jones' three hits came off Houston starter Nelson Figueroa, who allowed three runs - one earned - and six hits in five innings.
``He's a constant. He's one of those guys who define a team,' Figueroa said. ``I have tremendous respect for him.'
Houston is where Jones was injured last season. Doubt was cast on his future.
``Everybody was questioning whether he'd retire or be able to come back,' Figueroa said. ``But he put in the work and it obviously shows.'
Lowe, who will start the opener for the Braves for the third straight year, allowed seven hits and three runs in 5 1-3 innings. He struck out five and walked one, throwing 95 pitches.
``I crammed in a lot of pitches, which was good,' Lowe said. ``I felt it the last couple of innings. I need that feeling. It was important so I'd be ready to start the season.'
Wilkin Ramirez had a tiebreaking, two-run double for Atlanta in the seventh inning.
Jason Michaels was 3 for 3 with two doubles and a RBI for Houston. He is batting .415 in the Grapefruit League.
Figueroa is struggling to stay in the Houston rotation. He won a spot last season after being claimed off waivers from the Philadelphia Phillies in July and was 5-3 for the Astros.
``Take out the bad inning and half against the Phillies and I think I put myself right at the top of the list hopefully for the fifth starting job,' Figueroa said. ``It's a continuation of last year. I've show what I can do. I think I can help the team out in that role all year long.'
NOTES: Kenshin Kawakami will donate $50,000 to assist the relief efforts in his native Japan. The pitcher's donation will be made along with one from the Braves through the Japan-America Society of Georgia. The Braves will travel to Port St. Lucie on Monday for their seventh of eight spring games with the New York Mets. Kawakami will start in place of Tommy Hanson, who is being given a couple of days' rest because of back soreness and will pitch against minor leaguers on Wednesday. Brett Wallace had two hits for Houston and Chris Johnson had a run-scoring double. Brian McCann delivered a two-run single for Atlanta. The Astros will host the Detroit Tigers on Monday. Atlanta reliever Scott Linebrink worked in a minor league game on Sunday so he could pitch on consecutive days for the first time this spring.
The Associated Press News Service
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