Beleaguered bullpen sinks Braves

Beleaguered bullpen sinks Braves

WASHINGTON -- It's been more than a year since the Braves have won a one-run road game, and with the current state of their bullpen, it's tough to envision them winning one any time soon.

Exactly one week after completing eight solid innings and leading the Mexico City Red Devils to the Mexican League championship, Elmer Dessens was unable to complete the one inning that might have allowed the Braves to once again taste the joy of a one-run victory outside of Atlanta.

Had Dessens worked a scoreless eighth inning at Nationals Park on Sunday afternoon, there was no guarantee the Braves would have halted their historic skid of 28 straight one-run road losses. But when the 37-year-old righty made it a rough inning, it was all but guaranteed the Nationals would claim another win over the Braves.

With the five-run eighth inning they constructed against Dessens and Will Ohman, Washington notched an 8-4 win and completed a three-game sweep of Atlanta.

"I didn't make any good pitches to help the team today, and it cost us the game," said Dessens, who hasn't exactly impressed in the two appearances he's made since signing with the Braves on Wednesday.

There was reason for surprise when Dessens entered the game. The veteran right-hander, who was released by the Pirates at the end of Spring Training, had found some success in the Mexican League this season and took advantage of the fact the Braves are starved for pitching help.

Jo-Jo Reyes' four-inning effort on Wednesday night forced Jeff Bennett, Vladimir Nunez and Julian Tavarez each to work two innings. Buddy Carlyle pitched during the first two games of the series, and Manny Acosta was unavailable because he's battled right shoulder soreness since completing two scoreless innings in St. Louis last Sunday.

Thus, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox was pretty much forced to call upon Dessens, who had issued two walks and surrendered a hit while working 1 2/3 innings in his season debut on Friday night. The lone option proved costly when three batters into this appearance, Dessens surrendered Aaron Boone's game-winning three-run homer.

"He's pitched twice now and hasn't had much luck at all," Cox said of Dessens, who was charged with five earned runs and four hits after recording just one out against the Nationals.

During this 28-pitch effort, Dessens prevented Jair Jurrjens from winning for the first time in four starts and denied the Braves the chance to preserve the one-run lead they'd held since Yunel Escobar hit a three-run fourth-inning homer off Nationals starter Collin Balester.

But instead of winning a one-run road-game for the first time since Aug. 9, 2007, Atlanta lost for the 16th time in a span of 20 games. This also was the 10th loss it has suffered in 14 games against Washington this year.

After allowing an RBI single to Wil Nieves, Dessens gave way to Ohman, who yielded a pair of singles and issued a walk between a pair of strikeouts that brought an end to the inning.

"We thought we were going to be able to piece it together," Cox said in reference to his bullpen, which has become fatigued due to starters lasting fewer than five innings in 10 of the 29 games in August.

After Jurrjens needed 109 pitches to limit the Nationals to three earned runs in six innings, Cox got a perfect inning from Blaine Boyer and needed just three more outs to have the opportunity to hand the ball to closer Mike Gonzalez, who has successfully converted his past 37 save opportunities.

Gonzalez's only two-inning appearance since returning from Tommy John elbow ligament transplant surgery in June came during the 17-inning win against the Astros on July 6. At the time, the Braves still were in postseason contention and there was reason for Cox to push the man he's counting on to serve as his closer next year.

But this was a different situation, and given the tremendous injury woes Atlanta has endured this season, it didn't seem prudent to provide Gonzalez the assignment. Nor did Cox have any desire to risk the health of Tavarez, Bennett or Nunez.

"I couldn't do that to them. [I couldn't] look myself in the face trying to win a ballgame and kill a pitcher," Cox said.

After struggling with his control again, Jurrjens put some of the blame on himself. He issued just three walks, but one was a two-out free pass to Balester that preceded Willie Harris' fourth-inning RBI single.

"I blame it on me and the rest of the starters," Jurrjens said. "We're not giving good starts for the team, and that's why we're struggling in the bullpen."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.