Based on the strong performance Mike Pelfrey delivered in the 5-1 win the Mets claimed over the Braves at Turner Field on Saturday afternoon, there certainly wasn't any indication that he hadn't won at the Major League level in nine previous starts this year. But then again, there also weren't many indications that this Atlanta offense actually entered this weekend with the National League's highest batting average.
"Six hits in two games just isn't going to get it," said frustrated Braves manager Bobby Cox in reference to the fact that his team has registered six hits -- just two singles on Saturday -- and has struck out 22 times in 56 at-bats during this series.
Entering Friday, the Mets were reeling from the four-game sweep they'd been handed in Philadelphia. Entering Sunday's showdown between Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, they have little reason to fear a third-place Braves team that now stands 6 1/2 games behind them in the division standings.
"Now our backs are against the wall pretty big," said Jeff Francoeur, who accounted for one of the two hits the Braves collected on Saturday. "Now instead of taking two out of three [in future series], you've got to talk about sweeping series. By no means have we given up. But we realize we have a tall task ahead to get back in it."
Pelfrey, a legitimate top prospect, had gone 0-7 with a 5.92 ERA in his nine starts for the Mets this season. In 14 starts at Triple-A New Orleans, he went 3-6 with a 4.01 ERA. Thus, there was definite reason to be surprised about the fact that he returned to the Majors on Saturday to limit the Braves to one earned run and one hit in six innings.
"We swung at a lot of bad pitches today," said Brian McCann, who, like Chipper Jones and Mark Teixeira, suffered through a two-strikeout performance.
The only person possibly feeling more helpless after this loss -- the 11th in the past 16 games for the Braves -- was Kelly Johnson, who struck out three times. Two of those punchouts came against Pelfrey, a 6-foot-7 right-hander whose fastball can touch 97 mph and whose slider can definitely be lost in the midday sun.
"Pelfrey was effectively wild," said Cox, who saw his starting pitcher, Chuck James, prove effective before once again being undone by the long ball during New York's decisive two-run fifth inning.
"We've been behind the eight ball for quite some time now. We've got to win some games to get back in this. Our heads are all up, and I've still got a good feeling about this team."
-- Mark Teixeira
James, who wasn't bothered by the left shoulder that had shelved him the past two weeks, surrendered three earned runs and five hits in five innings. The crushing blows came courtesy of the solo homers he surrendered to Carlos Delgado and Lastings Milledge in the fifth inning.
"For Chuck to be successful like he has been in the past, he's got to stay ahead in the count and work the ball down in the zone," said McCann of James, who has surrendered each of his team-high 27 homers in a span of his past 125 1/3 innings.
With his team down 3-0 and falling into another funk, Francoeur opted to spice things up after getting hit on the left forearm with Pelfrey's first pitch of the fifth inning. The Braves outfielder exchanged some words with the tall hurler as he walked toward first base and nothing more came of the situation.
"To be honest with you, a lot of the reason I said something was to try to get us fired up and get us going," Francoeur said.
Seemingly somewhat rattled, Pelfrey followed by issuing a five-pitch walk to Andruw Jones and then fell behind with a 3-0 count to Chris Woodward, whose assignment was to supply a sacrifice bunt. Unfortunately for the Braves, that assignment was botched when Woodward popped a 3-1 bunt attempt to third baseman David Wright. The only run realized by this threat came via Willie Harris' sacrifice fly.
"It's not a good time for our offense not to show up," said Teixeira, who contributed the Braves' only other hit of the afternoon. "But at the same time, their pitchers did a good job the past two days."
At the same time, the Braves have just 26 more games to erase this 6 1/2-game deficit. Mathematically, there's obviously still a chance. But it's certainly not as promising as these two chances that have already gone to waste this weekend.
"We've been behind the eight ball for quite some time now," Teixeira said. "We've got to win some games to get back in this. Our heads are all up, and I've still got a good feeling about this team."