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Early deficit too much for Braves

Early deficit too much for Braves

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CHICAGO -- Only two games into the longest road trip of the season, there's already reason to wonder just how disastrous it might prove to be. This isn't the mind-set that the Braves desired.

But as the injuries and losses continue to mount, it's impossible for them to ignore the fact that they might have to do something miraculous over the course of the next eight games finally to put an end to their monumental road roes.

Looking for a miracle from Jeff Bennett at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night, the Braves instead received an effort that forced them to taste a fifth consecutive defeat for the first time this season. Bennett's inability to make clutch pitches allowed the Cubs to gain an early lead and cruise to a 7-2 win.

"[Bennett] was throwing the ball really well," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He just made mistakes. He made a lot of great pitches, and he made a couple of really, really bad ones."

Those who have come to know Cox's desire to show this kind of optimism, even when it's not warranted, might laugh at this comment. But because so many of Bennett's mistakes came with two outs or with the count 0-2, this comment also contained plenty of truth.

"He was OK," Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "He just didn't make pitches later in the count, when he needed to."

Unfortunately for the Braves, who have lost 16 of their past 19 road games, this wasn't a good time for Bennett to provide an unsuccessful audition to gain a spot in their injury-fractured starting rotation.

During Tuesday night's series-opening loss to the Cubs, the Braves lost Tom Glavine to an elbow injury that will sideline him for an unknown period. After the game, they lost Wednesday's scheduled starter Jair Jurrjens to an ankle injury that stemmed from the fact that he missed his last step while exiting the visitors' clubhouse.

When Cox headed back to his hotel after Wednesday's loss, he had reason to believe suffering a similar ankle injury would be less painful than the first three innings he'd just watched a few hours earlier. During that span, Bennett recorded just six outs, allowed seven earned runs and surrendered seven hits.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, what they'll remember most about Bennett is the fact that he hit Alfonso Soriano with an 0-2 fastball with two outs in the second inning. The pitch fractured the All-Star outfielder's left ring finger and he's expected to miss at least six weeks. "The bullpen did well," said Cox, reaching for any sort of optimism on a night, when his bullpen did combine to allow just three hits over six scoreless innings.

Jeff Ridgway impressed Cox by keeping the Cubs scoreless in the fifth and sixth innings. The left-hander was recalled from Triple-A Richmond earlier in the day and didn't arrive at the park until the third inning.

Another reason for Cox to keep at least some hint of optimism was the fact that Chipper Jones returned to the lineup on Wednesday and was at least able to limp away without doing any significant damage to his strained right quadriceps muscle. He had missed the previous two games.

Jones, who has a Major League-best .419 batting average, singled in the first inning and then exited the game after striking out in the sixth. As he swung and missed the third strike, he was in apparent discomfort and he moved slowly back to the dugout.

But Cox is hopeful that his 36-year-old third baseman will play as the Braves attempt to prevent being swept during a second straight series on Thursday afternoon.

"He can play like that," Cox said. "I just took him out so that he can hopefully play tomorrow."

While Bennett struggled to finish the job, Cubs starter Ryan Dempster was constructing his first complete game since 2002. The former closer, who returned to a starting role this year, allowed two hits through the first six innings. All of the damage he incurred came in the seventh inning, which included a Jeff Francoeur double and Corky Miller two-run homer.

Even with Miller providing something big with his third hit in 33 at-bats this season, the Braves weren't able to overcome the damage suffered by Bennett, who exited during the game for undisclosed personal reasons.

Bennett's struggles began in the first inning, when, after getting ahead of Derrek Lee with an 0-2 count, he issued the lanky first baseman a two-out walk. Two batters later, Kosuke Fukudome drilled an 0-2 curveball over the right-center-field wall for a three-run homer.

"If we get a fly ball from Fukudome there in the first inning or any kind of out, it's probably a different ballgame," McDowell said.

After surrendering a two-out, two-run double to Ryan Theriot in the second inning, Bennett allowed each of the first four batters he faced in the third inning to reach safely. Two of those four batters battled back after falling behind with 0-2 counts.

"He was just less aggressive [when he got an 0-2 count] for whatever reason," McDowell said.

Cox, McDowell and the rest of the Braves are searching for answers, seemingly on a nightly basis. With no help from Bennett, they still find themselves grasping for any potential optimism.

"[Bennett] had two outs and nobody on and then all of the sudden, they had three runs," Cox said. "He made one real bad pitch to Fukudome. He was throwing the ball right by him. You've got to focus in a little more and get that third out."

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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