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Braves can't gain momentum

Braves can't gain momentum

ATLANTA -- When the Braves were swept by the Mets this past weekend, John Smoltz spoke about the pressure he and his teammates would face while knowing they'd need to be nearly perfect the rest of the regular season. Just two days later, their margin for error has been further reduced.

As for the concern about the back end of their rotation, it has definitely been increased courtesy of the prolonged struggles experienced by Buddy Carlyle, who played a brief, yet damaging role in the 5-2 loss the Braves suffered to the Phillies at Turner Field on Tuesday night.

But while Carlyle's inability to even complete two innings set the evening's tone, the offense's inability to capitalize on the bases-loaded, nobody-out situation Kyle Lohse afforded them in the fifth inning simply rekindled a frustration that has been present far too often over the course of the past month.

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"There's a lot of pressure on us every night," said Chipper Jones, who homered in the fourth and drew a bases-loaded, two-out walk in an unfulfilled fifth inning. "The magic number of games until we're mathematically eliminated is dwindling fast. It's frustrating, because there's nothing we can do about it. The harder and harder we try, the more things go wrong."

With 10 losses in their past 15 games, the Braves certainly haven't assumed the appearance of a legitimate postseason contender. Their magic number for elimination from the National League East race is 16 and from the Wild Card race it's 18. In other words, they can't have many more starts like this one provided by Carlyle, who allowed three earned runs in just 1 2/3 innings and then chose not to speak to the media after the game.

"There's mounting frustration," Jeff Francoeur said. "We are trying to do something to get back in it and we just can't right now. We can't beat a streak together to save our lives."

That frustration was highly visible when Jones slammed his batting helmet to the ground after grounding out to end the seventh inning. Frustrated all night by plate umpire Rick Reed's strike zone, the veteran third baseman aimed a majority of his postgame venom in the direction of umpires.

"You're seeing a lot of frustration being taken out on the field right now and you're going to continue to see it from now on as long as the officiating is abysmal," said Jones during a lengthy outburst in which he said he didn't fear any consequential fine from Major League Baseball. "They're not allowing us to do our job. All we ask for is a fair fight. Just let us do our job. The stinkin' catchers are back there chuckling."

Reed didn't hit two harmless pop flies like Willie Harris and Kelly Johnson did after the Braves loaded the bases with nobody out in the fifth inning against Phillies starter Kyle Lohse. Nor, unlike Carlyle, did he surrender Ryan Howard's two-run first-inning homer of Carlos Ruiz's second-inning leadoff homer.

But Jones was certainly miffed about the 1-1 pitch that preceded Howard's homer and a couple of pitches against him that he says were in the batter's box.

"Somebody has to say something," Jones said. "I've got more walks than strikeouts in my career. I know what the strike zone is."

Unfortunately for the Braves, they're constantly being reminded of something that could be called the Billy Wagner curse. Since seeing Wagner complete a scoreless ninth after loading the bases with nobody out in the ninth inning at Shea Stadium on Aug. 8, they've regularly come up empty in those situations.

Thus, it wasn't out of the ordinary to see Harris, who has three hits in his past 47 at-bats, and Johnson produce consecutive flies to kill the fifth-inning momentum. Had Jones not battled back from 0-2 to draw a walk, the Braves wouldn't have even touched Lohse for a run in the fifth inning.

"The inning is made or broke with the first two outs," Jones said. "We need to do a better job of taking runs that are given to us when the opportunity arises."

Before Wagner's escape act, the Braves were hitting .305 (32-for-105) with the bases loaded. Including that escape, they have managed just five hits in their past 24 at-bats without an empty base in sight.

"We really have to start capitalizing with men on base," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Our bullpen actually did a good job of holding them and giving us a chance. We just didn't do it."

After Carlyle, who has allowed eight homers in his past five starts (20 1/3 innings), matched Mark Redman for the second-shortest start by a Braves pitcher this season, Jo-Jo Reyes surrendered just one run and completed 3 1/3 innings in his first career relief appearance. The only other run surrendered by the Atlanta bullpen came in the ninth against Manny Acosta.

Still this admirable relief effort combined with Andruw Jones' three-hit performance wasn't enough for the Braves, who continue to squander opportunities and move closer to a second straight dormant October.

"At the end of the day, the only person we have to blame is ourselves," Francoeur said. "We had chances to get back in the game and we didn't do it."

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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