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Bullpen can't end Braves' tailspin

Bullpen can't end tailspin

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CHICAGO -- No longer are the Braves even attempting to provide excuses to explain the season-long struggles they've experienced in close games this season. It's been 10 months since they've won a one-run game on the road, and there is no indication that drought is going to end any time soon.

"Everybody else executes, we don't," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "Everybody else makes the crucial play. We're struggling with it."

It's been seven days since Kelly Johnson dropped his game-ending fly ball during Friday night's series opener against the Phillies, and the Braves haven't tasted victory since then. Their season-worst sixth consecutive loss came in bitter fashion with a 3-2 loss to the Cubs at Wrigley Field on Thursday afternoon.

"It hurts to lose a game like that, especially the way that we've been going," right-handed reliever Blaine Boyer said. "Those are the types of games that we have to win."

Actually, the Braves have to go back to Aug. 9, when Willie Harris made a game-saving catch at Shea Stadium, to find a one-run road game that they've won. They've lost 21 consecutive one-run road games and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, this ties the Major League record set by the Royals from 2000-2001.

"This loss right here had nothing to do with bad luck," Jones said after watching the Braves lose for the 17th time in their past 20 road games. "This was just bad baseball, plain and simple."

When Tim Hudson exited in the seventh with a one-run lead that had come courtesy of Jeff Francoeur's second-inning, two-run homer off Carlos Zambrano, there was no need for the Braves to feel safe. With closer Rafael Soriano having already made himself unavailable for a second straight day with a sore elbow, their unproven bullpen was once again short-handed.

Working his second inning, Boyer allowed Jim Edmonds' game-tying, opposite-field homer with one out in the ninth inning. Then, after keeping the Cubs scoreless in the 10th, Manny Acosta allowed each of the three batters he faced in the 11th to reach safely. One pitch later, with the bases loaded, left-handed reliever Jeff Ridgway hit Reed Johnson in the right calf with a pitch.

Immediately, Wrigley Field celebrated the Cubs' 10th straight home victory and the Braves continued their tradition of returning to a visitor's clubhouse to figure out what happened.

"We're in all of these games, but we never add on," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "We've got the runners on. But we never get them in."

Given that Boyer has blown two save opportunities and suffered a loss during this six-game losing streak, some may choose to pin this loss on him. But the offense stranded 14 runners and went hitless in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position.

After the Cubs scored their lone run off Hudson in the seventh inning, the Braves loaded the bases with nobody out in the eighth. But left-handed reliever Scott Eyre and right-handed reliever Carlos Marmol combined to record consecutive strikeouts of Greg Norton, Gregor Blanco and Omar Infante to kill the threat. The Braves have two hits in their last 17 at-bats with the bases loaded.

"That was one of about two or three instances that could have won us the game," said Jones, whose Major League-leading .414 batting average dropped when he grounded into a double play after the first two batters of the fifth inning had reached safely.

Johnson's doubles in the ninth and 11th innings were squandered. The latter double prompted Cubs manager Lou Piniella to tell closer Kerry Wood to intentionally walk Jones. The move paid off when Mark Teixeira looked at strike three to end the inning.

"That last decision, we had to walk Jones," Piniella said. "He's hitting .414. A cold beer wouldn't have tasted good on the airplane if Jones had beaten us there. So we chose Teixeira, and Teixeira's a good hitter, believe me. Woody made a real nice pitch on him."

Hudson, who scattered seven hits and allowed just one run over 6 2/3 innings, didn't encounter much trouble until surrendering Aramis Ramirez's seventh-inning leadoff single. When shortstop Yunel Escobar wasn't able to touch second after fielding a Kosuke Fukudome grounder behind the bag, Ramirez was given a chance to move to third on a Geovany Soto single. That put him in position to score on a sacrifice fly from Edmonds.

"He pitched great," Cox said of Hudson, who has seen Boyer blow ninth-inning leads in both of his past two starts. "He gave up one run in this ballpark with the wind blowing out and that [one run] was tainted."

Cox said Hudson couldn't have pitched any better and explained that he couldn't have pitched any longer. When the veteran pitcher got to the clubhouse, he was given an IV to treat him for dehydration.

Boyer escaped some trouble in the eighth and retired his first batter in the ninth. Instead of calling upon left-hander Will Ohman, who hadn't previously pitched during the series, Cox stuck with the right-hander. Part of his reasoning was that Edmonds had struck out in four of his previous six at-bats.

But at the same time, Cox has chosen to stick with Boyer and Acosta as his primary relievers during most of this injury-plagued season. He's been without Peter Moylan since the season's second week, and Soriano has made just nine appearances this season.

With Soriano unavailable yet again, Cox decided to stick with Boyer and only regretted it when Edmonds recorded just his seventh extra-base hit in a span of 93 at-bats.

"You're trying to protect a one-run or tied game all of the time," Cox said. "It's impossible. You can't do that all the time. We had our chances to add on."

Unfortunately for Acosta, who has allowed eight earned runs in his past five appearances, and Boyer, who hadn't allowed a homer in his previous 31 appearances, this was just another day where they were asked to mature quickly and carry the load for a team that is both undermanned and underachieving.

"It's a byproduct of the fact that we don't have Soriano and we don't have Moylan," Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell said. "These guys [Boyer and Acosta] are being asked to step up and do something that maybe they're not prepared to do right now."

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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