Francoeur's day dashed as Braves fall

Francoeur's day dashed as Braves fall

ATLANTA -- All of the optimism the Braves created during their first six games of the season has been blurred by the upstart Marlins, who took advantage of costly mistakes and displayed the depth of their talented starting rotation while notching their first three-game sweep in Atlanta.

While attempting to stay atop the National League East standings, Atlanta knew it would have to withstand the challenge presented by Florida's pitching staff. But the club didn't necessarily expect to be undone by yet another bases-loaded walk Wednesday and the glare of the afternoon sun Thursday.

Kelly Johnson's inability to see Yunel Escobar's potential double-play feed provided Cody Ross the opportunity to ruin an otherwise strong Kenshin Kawakami start with a three-run, second-inning homer that carried the Marlins to a 6-2 sweep-clinching win over the Braves at Turner Field.

"You look at all of the games, it seems like they had one hit every game that kind of killed us, and today it just happened to be that home run," said Braves right fielder Jeff Francoeur, who accounted for both of his team's runs with a pair of two-out RBI hits.

When Escobar fielded Dan Uggla's second-inning grounder, it appeared Johnson would easily complete the double-play relay to first base. But the Braves' second baseman lost Escobar's feed in the afternoon glare and consequently didn't even record one out. Two batters later, Ross drilled Kawakami's 2-0 fastball into the left-field seats.

"This is one of the hardest places to play a day game," Johnson said. "I saw it out of his hand, and I at least knew it was coming at me. I put my glove where I thought it was going and just couldn't see it."

Had Johnson turned the double play, Kawakami likely would have escaped the second inning unscathed. But instead of enjoying the fact that he recorded his first two Major League hits during his second career start, the 33-year-old Japanese right-hander found himself still stewing about the fact that he'd compounded the error by allowing Ross to deliver his decisive one-out, three-run homer.

"That's part of baseball, really," Kawakami said. "It's really my fault for giving up that home run."

Entering the series with identical 5-1 records, the Braves and Marlins experienced differing fortunes as the week progressed. The Marlins won the series opener on the strength of Chris Volstad's live right arm, and they then captured Wednesday night's victory after Peter Moylan issued a go-ahead, bases-loaded walk in the seventh inning.

As they completed their franchise's first three-game sweep in Atlanta, the Marlins used Ross' homer and six effective innings from Anibal Sanchez, who limited the Braves to two runs while scattering eight hits and issuing three walks.

After winning five of their first six games this year, the Braves now find themselves three games behind the front-running Marlins in the NL East.

"It's a long season," Johnson said. "You don't get down about anything. We might turn around and sweep them some other time, maybe at their place, and return the favor."

Although he encountered further trouble during a two-run sixth inning that was highlighted by Jeremy Hermida's RBI triple, Kawakami once again left a good impression on manager Bobby Cox, who watched the Japanese hurler allow five runs and register seven strikeouts in six innings.

"He made one bad pitch to Ross and one bad pitch to Hermida, and that caused all of the damage," Cox said. "He pitched outstanding. If we get the double play, they don't get the three runs. I thought he was on top of his game today. He was as good as he could possibly be."

While playing the final two games of this series without Chipper Jones, who is nursing a bruised left thumb, the Braves weren't at full strength. Thursday's lineup -- which was also initially missing Brian McCann, who was resting for the first time this season -- was further weakened when Yunel Escobar suffered an abdominal strain that could sideline him for at least three games.

Still, the Braves were able to keep things close with assistance from Garret Anderson, who delivered his first two extra-base hits of the season with two-out doubles in the third and fifth innings. These doubles put the 36-year-old outfielder in position to score on the two RBI knocks provided by Francoeur, who has four hits in his first six at-bats with two outs and runners in scoring position.

With his new offensive approach, Francoeur has compiled a .306 batting average. More importantly, he's taking advantage of the run-scoring opportunities that he often squandered while hitting just .175 (14-for-80) with two outs and runners in scoring position last year.

"It feels good," Francoeur said. "I'm relaxed and I'm not scared to hit with two strikes. I'm trying to hit the ball up the middle or the other way, and if they make a mistake, then you try to make them pay."

Without utilizing their top two pitchers, Josh Johnson and Ricky Nolasco, the Marlins made the Braves pay for their mistakes and also take notice of the fact that they have the pieces to remain serious contenders throughout this season.

"Right now, they are probably playing as well as anybody in baseball," Francoeur said. "They have five [starting pitchers] they can run out there every day who can put it to you."

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