Braves' comeback comes up short

Braves' comeback comes up short

HOUSTON -- With a ninth-inning rally against Astros closer Jose Valverde on Friday, the Braves proved once again that they're still playing with pride. But at the same time, they're playing with a group of young players who are obviously capable of making costly mistakes.

Darin Erstad's ninth-inning walk-off homer off Julian Tavarez provided the Astros a 5-4 win over a Braves team that exited Minute Maid Park knowing that yet another one-run loss could have been avoided had they simply not made so many mistakes -- both mental and physical.

"It stinks to give it to them like that," said Kelly Johnson, who went hitless in two at-bats to snap his career-best 22-game hitting streak.

Erstad's homer off Tavarez, who has a 6.00 ERA in his past 11 appearances, provided the Astros some joy on a night when they were officially eliminated from the postseason race. Their slim hopes to compete in October were dashed when the Brewers beat the Cubs.

After falling behind, 4-0, through the first three innings, the Braves put themselves in position to claim what would have been one of their finest comebacks of the year. Instead, after producing a ninth-inning run off Valverde, who hadn't allowed a run in his previous 19 appearances, they were forced to endure their Major League-high 31st one-run loss of the season.

"That's the way the game goes," said Brandon Jones, who minimized potential ninth-inning damage with a costly baserunning mistake. "You have your ups and your downs."

Valverde, who suffered his first blown save in his past 19 opportunities dating back to July 21, issued a leadoff walk to Omar Infante, who advanced to second base when Jeff Francoeur followed with a single.

Things got interesting when Jones followed with a potential double-play grounder to first baseman Lance Berkman. After receiving Berkman's throw, shortstop Miguel Tejada made a wide throw to first base that eluded Valverde's glove, allowing Infante to race home with a game-tying run.

But instead of having one out and a runner at first with Chipper Jones coming to the plate as a pinch-hitter, the Braves suddenly found themselves with two outs. Third-base umpire Joe West came across the diamond and, after he conferred with the other umpires, ruled that the Astros had tagged Jones before he returned to first base, and after he'd made a motion toward second base.

"I don't know what he was doing there," Manager Bobby Cox said of his rookie outfielder. "All you've got to do is walk back to the base. That was big with Chipper coming up to bat."

Brandon Jones, who said he "tried to play it off" as if he never made a move toward second, wasn't the only rookie outfielder to make a costly mistake that irritated Cox. Center fielder Josh Anderson was involved in a rare third-inning play, during which the speedy Michael Bourn scored from second base on a Berkman sacrifice fly.

After Anderson secured the catch while making sure he didn't trip on the hill in deep center, Bourn took off with full intention of scoring.

"We didn't get rid of the ball quick enough," Cox said. "Everybody acted surprised. We were yelling from the dugout because that's what [the Astros] do."

Bourn's dash toward the plate highlighted a three-run third inning that put an end to the storybook season enjoyed by Jorge Campillo, who allowed four earned runs and seven hits in three innings. It was the shortest non-weather-affected outing of the season for the right-hander.

"Campillo was just pitched out," Cox said while pointing out that the 29-year-old rookie pitched in a Winter League before coming to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee. "He had a super season."

Campillo, whose first-inning throwing error helped the Astros score their first run, went 1-4 with a 6.31 ERA in his final nine starts of the season. During his first 16 starts this year, he was 7-4 with a 3.21 ERA.

"I felt good," said Campillo, who had made just one Major League start before becoming a mainstay in the Braves rotation on May 20. "It was a very good season."

The Braves, who had won four of their previous six games, were held hitless by Brian Moehler until Anderson began their two-run fourth inning with a leadoff double. That put him in position to score on Casey Kotchman's two-run single. Although he was held hitless, Johnson did produce an eighth-inning sacrifice fly that brought the Braves within one run.

"We made a great comeback and our bullpen did a super job of holding them," Cox said. "All the balls we hit hard all night were right at somebody."

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