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Braves' bullpen falters in difficult loss

Braves' bullpen falters in difficult loss

PHILADELPHIA -- Just when it looked like things might be different this year, the Phillies once again managed to embarrass the Braves' pitching staff with a remarkable comeback that included more generosity than firepower.

Nine outs away from beginning their season with a three-game series sweep of the defending World Series champions, the Braves watched their bullpen implode during an eight-run seventh inning that included more walks than hits.

While drawing four bases-loaded walks against three different relievers at Citizens Bank Park on Wednesday afternoon, the Phillies constructed the eight-run seventh inning that enabled them to claim a 12-11 win over a Braves team that suddenly turned from jubilant to stunned.

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"That's the worst inning I've seen," said Blaine Boyer, who found the strike zone with only one of his nine pitches and exited after issuing two bases-loaded walks. "You talk about your ultimate. We were walking there for a while, 10-3, and it just blows up like that. That's baseball, and I take the brunt of the blame for that one."

Four-bases loaded walks occurring in one inning might seem like a rarity. But according to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's happened twice previously during this decade. The Orioles issued four bases-loaded walks in the eighth inning of a Sept. 5, 2008 game against the A's.

The last time it occurred in the National League was May 9, 2004, when the Dodgers allowed the Pirates to score four eighth-inning runs via walks.

Holding a 10-3 lead entering the bottom of the seventh inning, the Braves had every reason to think they were going to claim a season-opening, three-game series sweep in Philadelphia for the second time in three years. The Phillies had trailed during each of the previous 24 innings of the season and scored a total of four runs during that span.

"Everybody loses games like this in here," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "Philadelphia loses them too. You get a five- or six-run lead and it's like a two-run lead the way the ballpark plays. It's a hitter's park from the word 'Go.' But you can't catch walks."

This loss had nothing to do with the ballpark and everything to do with a suspect middle relief corps that was exposed in an unthinkable manner. In fitting fashion, the ridiculous inning was capped when Ryan Howard produced a one-out RBI dribbler to first base off Jorge Campillo, who had started his outing by issuing a bases-loaded walk and allowing the Phillies to tie the game on a bases-loaded walk to Chase Utley.

"One of the solid parts of our team is our pitching from front to back," said Matt Diaz, who kept things interesting with a ninth-inning homer off Brad Lidge. "That's just an aberration. You can't describe it. That's the first time I've ever seen it and hopefully it's the last."

Eric O'Flaherty, who had tossed 1 1/3 scoreless innings during Tuesday night's win, sparked the Phillies' rally when he got ahead of Howard with an 0-2 count and then hit him with a pitch to put runners at first and second base.

This prompted the entry of Peter Moylan, who was making his first appearance since undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery on May 8. Admittedly over-excited, Moylan threw just seven of his 16 pitches for strikes. In the process, he allowed a pair of RBI singles and issued two walks, including one to Matt Stairs with the bases loaded.

"I looked at my mechanics and my mechanics were a little bit off," Moylan said. "I was flying open and I wasn't able to put the ball where I wanted it and the ball wasn't sinking. When my ball doesn't sink, it's an 88 mph straight ball that doesn't do anything."

Moylan then gave way to Boyer, whose ugly nine-pitch appearances allowed the Phillies to pull within two runs with consecutive bases-loaded walks. The right-handed reliever said that the chilly temperatures may have played a part in the fact that he couldn't get a feel for the baseball.

"Whenever you go in there, you're not thinking about the momentum or anything like that," Boyer said. " You've just got to do your job and I just didn't do my job."

Instead of enjoying the fact that both Brian McCann and Jordan Schafer had collected their second homers of the year with two-run shots to support Javier Vazquez, who limited the Phillies to three runs over six innings, Cox was forced to relive some of the nightmares he encountered with last year's pitching staff.

While winning 14 of the 18 games they played against the Braves last year, the Phillies claimed four of those victories in games that they were trailing by at least three runs. The two most forgettable games from Atlanta's perspective occurred at this same venue on consecutive days in late July, when the Phillies overcame fifth-inning deficits of five and six runs.

"I've never seen that," Cox said. "I've seen a couple of walk-ins, but nothing like that all in one inning. We got a quick out and Utley hit one off the end of the bat, blooper to left. Then we end up hitting Howard and all hell broke loose. We couldn't throw a strike."

While issuing five walks, hitting a batter and allowing four hits -- all singles -- the Braves bullpen allowed the Phillies to ruin what would have been a memorable Atlanta debut for Vazquez, whose primary damage came courtesy of Raul Ibanez's second-inning homer.

Before the Ibanez homer, the three Braves starters who worked this series had held the Phillies scoreless for 15 innings and enjoyed the fact that they were each given a 2-0 lead before they even threw their first pitch.

When the Braves boarded their charter flight back to Atlanta, they weren't thinking about the fact that McCann had hit two-out, two-run homers during the first inning of two of these three games. Instead, they found themselves attempting to erase memories of a forgettable seventh inning that previously would have been deemed seemingly impossible.

"It happened to us twice last year and it happened again," Jeff Francoeur said. "It's unbelievable how [things happen at] this place, there's something about it."

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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