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Notes: Chipper returns to the lineup

Notes: Chipper returns to lineup

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ATLANTA -- After the Braves were shut out for a third straight game on Friday night, John Smoltz said, "I'm on the mound busting it just as hard as I can. We all could wish we were feeling better. But that's just the way it is."

Without directly calling out his long-time teammate Chipper Jones, Smoltz, who has made his past three starts with tightness in his right shoulder, was certainly issuing a challenge that the veteran third baseman answered when he declared himself ready to play in Saturday afternoon's game against the Tigers at Turner Field.

After taking a few grounders and swings during batting practice, Jones told Braves manager Bobby Cox to put him in the lineup. He missed Friday's series opener with a strained muscle in his right groin region. The discomfort was enough for Cox to believe there was a chance his third baseman could be headed to the disabled list for the fifth time since the beginning of the 2006 season.

"It feels a lot better," said Jones, who first began feeling the discomfort before Wednesday's series finale against the Red Sox. "I don't foresee it being a long-term problem. It's going to get better with time. As I continue to play more and more, it's going to get stronger and better."

This wasn't exactly the product of some miraculous medical recovery. There's no doubt Jones is still feeling some discomfort. But at the same time, he realizes that his absence could definitely prolong the string of painful losses the Braves have felt this week.

Entering Saturday's matchup against Detroit's 24 year-old right-hander Justin Verlander, who has already established himself as one of the game's top hurlers, the Braves had been held scoreless for 28 consecutive innings. This marked the first time since their 106-loss season of 1988 that they had been shut out in three straight games.

"We've been shut out three straight games and four times since I came off the disabled list," said Jones, who has hit .488 since coming off the DL on June 13. "There's some pressure to get back in there."

Before Jones bruised both of his hands while breaking a fall at PNC Park on May 11, the Braves were hitting .262 with a .348 on-base percentage and .435 slugging percentage. The injury would limit him to just seven of the next 29 games the Braves played through June 12. During that span, the Braves hit .272, but had a .316 on-base percentage and .421 slugging percentage.

"There's no doubt he's a huge presence in our lineup," Braves first baseman Scott Thorman said. "If Chipper doesn't get a hit in a game, his presence alone still makes a difference in our team's outlook."

Understanding this, Jones knew it was vital for him to return to the lineup, even though he hasn't yet completely recovered from this latest injury.

"Getting hurt is frustrating," Jones said. "You go out there and play and play and sometimes your body doesn't allow you to do the things you're capable of doing. [Right now], I feel like my body is letting me go out there and be successful."

Shaking it up: With his batting average at .199, Andruw Jones found himself dropped to the seventh spot of the batting order on Saturday. He hadn't batted that low since occupying that spot for eight games during the 2005 season.

But that wasn't the only lineup change aimed toward ending this horrid recent offensive skid. Cox also opted to flip-flop Kelly Johnson and Willie Harris, who found himself in the leadoff role for just the second time this season.

"It's just something to do," said Cox, while explaining this move had nothing to do with what Johnson and Harris have done recently.

Lately, Harris has been the more consistent offensive threat. He's hitting .367 with a .404 on-base percentage in June. As for Johnson, he has made up for the .250 batting average he's compiled this month by reaching base at a respectable .337 clip. Still that mark is significantly lower than the .379 on-base percentage he's produced on the season.

When the Braves face a left-handed starter and Harris is out of the lineup, Johnson will likely return to the leadoff spot.

No support for Smoltz: Just saying the Braves have scored one run or fewer in Smoltz's four losses this year doesn't exactly tell the whole story. In the 26 2/3 innings that he has been on the mound during those losses, the Braves offense has tallied three hits and been held scoreless.

During two of those setbacks (May 14 at Washington and June 5 vs. Florida), the Braves were still being no-hit when he exited the game.

Coming up: The Braves will conclude their three-game series against the Tigers on Sunday night at 8:05 p.m. ET. They'll send Chuck James (6-6, 4.11) to the mound to oppose Andrew Miller (2-1, 3.63).

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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