Four outs away from winning a sixth consecutive game for the first time this season, the Braves soon found disaster staring them in the face. What would've been a win that would've kept their postseason hopes alive, instead turned into a likely fatal loss that didn't seem likely after Tim Hudson retired the first two batters of the eighth inning.
The old baseball adage is that it takes 27 outs to win a ballgame. Hudson and the Braves were certainly reminded of this during the eighth inning of Friday night's 4-1 loss to the Brewers at Turner Field.
"It was a tough-luck inning," said Hudson, who entered what proved to be a three-run eighth having thrown 17 consecutive scoreless innings. "We had the game obviously in hand until that eighth inning. There's really not much to say. They hit some really good pitches off me and did the only thing they could do with them."
Three consecutive broken-bat singles by Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder and Corey Hart allowed the Brewers to erase the 1-0 deficit they'd been fighting since Mark Teixeira opened the second inning with a 458-foot homer off an otherwise stellar Carlos Villanueva.
After Hart directed his game-tying RBI single to right field, Hudson issued an intentional walk to load the bases and end an effort that was rewarded with a rousing standing ovation. When Ron Mahay missed the strike zone with his first four pitches to Joe Dillon, the excited home crowd was subdued and the Brewers had a lead they wouldn't relinquish.
The Brewers, who remain 1 1/2 games behind the first-place Cubs in the National League Central standings, added another run on a Bill Hall single against Tyler Yates.
"I thought the first two [pitches] were probably a little bit up," Mahay said. "But the 2-0 pitch was close enough, we thought, and the 3-0 pitch was in the same spot and we still thought it was still a strike, and the guy who was hitting was a little shocked. That was that."
Actually, it wasn't. As soon as Dillon drew the four-pitch bases-loaded walk, Braves manager Bobby Cox emerged from the dugout to call for right-handed reliever Tyler Yates and provide some choice words for home-plate umpire Chris Guccione, who didn't wait long to increase the veteran skipper's all-time ejections record to 135.
"They were close," Cox said of the pitches in question. "Sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't. We just didn't hold them when we needed to."
Like many other Major League teams that find themselves dormant in October, the Braves will look back on many games like this one and wonder just how different things could have been. This marks the fourth time they've lost a game in which Hudson has held an opponent scoreless through the first seven innings.
"That's baseball," said Hudson, who was charged with three earned runs and eight hits in 7 2/3 innings. "That's going to happen throughout the year. I'm not the only person that's going to happen to."
The Braves managed just three hits and one run in six innings against Villanueva and then simply found misfortune during an eighth inning that prevented them from winning just their 18th one-run game in what would have been their 42nd try this year.
Regardless of where the blame is placed, the Braves face the reality that with just eight games to play, they likely don't have enough time to erase the deficits they face in both the NL East and Wild Card races.
"There isn't many games left," Hudson said . "We really needed to win this one. Obviously every game is a must-win from here on out, including tonight, but we just fell short."
When Matt Diaz went to the left-field wall to grab J.J. Hardy's long drive and record the second out of the eighth inning, it looked like Hudson would win a second straight start and the Braves would at least provide more heat on the slumping Mets. But then Braun, Fielder and Hart began breaking hearts in Atlanta with some splintered bats that simply proved destructive.
"The worst two pitches I made that inning were outs," Hudson said. "After that you're thinking, 'OK, let's just zero in and make some better pitches.' Maybe I should have just thrown it down the middle. Maybe that would have been the ticket. But instead, I missed the barrels just enough to let them bloop them in."
History won't remember how this fateful two-out eighth-inning rally started. But Hudson and the Braves will definitely remember with the same sense of disgust that has followed them throughout too much of this season.
"They placed [their hits] better than we did tonight," catcher Brian McCann said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.