Originally created 08/13/97

Pirates take Braves in the ninth



ATLANTA - A glance at the statistics sheet told the whole story.

The chances of the Atlanta Braves blowing a lead in the ninth inning and losing were the same as a UFO touching down at Turner Field.

It just didn't happen - until Tuesday night.

The Braves, 133-0 since May 3, 1996 when leading after eight innings, saw a chance to increase their division lead disappear when closer Mark Wohlers blew a save in the ninth inning.

Turner Ward's bases-loaded single drove in a pair of runs and Al Martin singled home two more as the Pittsburgh Pirates beat the odds by scoring four runs in the ninth to take a 5-2 victory over the Braves in front of 42,435 fans.

"Nobody's perfect," Wohlers said. "It got ugly. I got the first guy out and after that it was all downhill."

Wohlers' fourth blown save in 32 opportunities spoiled an outstanding performance by Denny Neagle, who worked 7 1/3 innings and yielded six hits, one run and struck out seven. The only blemish to his evening was Eddie Williams' home run in the fourth that ended his shutout streak at 26 2/3 innings.

Neagle left with a 2-1 lead and was two outs away from his league-leading 17th win when the Pirates loaded the bases against Wohlers (4-5) with a single and a pair of walks. Ward, who entered the game as part of a double-switch in the seventh, lined Wohlers' first pitch into center field.

After Wohlers departed, Kerry Ligtenberg made his major league debut and yielded a two-run single to Martin.

"Wohlers hadn't blown a save for me all year," Neagle said. "When you have a closer like him you feel pretty confident."

For Wohlers, who has 92 saves in 103 opportunities since June 1995, it was his first blown save in the ninth inning this season. His three other blown saves had come when he entered a game in the eighth.

If the Braves had mustered an offense, they wouldn't have needed Wohlers. But they managed only eight hits, all but one a single, and one of the RBI belonged to Rafael Belliard, who had gone 118 at-bats since May 22, 1996 without one.

Despite facing a struggling pitcher, the Braves couldn't get anything going. Pirates right-hander Esteban Loaiza, who started the season 4-0 with a 2.44 ERA, but was 4-8 with a 5.91 ERA since then, limited the Braves to a collection of six singles in six innings. That wasn't surprising because the Braves were having trouble coming up with any extra-base hits at all.

By the seventh inning, the Braves were without one since Fred McGriff's double in the sixth inning Saturday and the offensive malaise was reaching epidemic proportions.

The streak finally ended at 27 innings in the seventh. The rally began innocently enough with Kenny Lofton's two-out single, then Michael Tucker sent a drive down the left field line that hit the wall just beyond Martin's reach and bounded away for a double, scoring Lofton. That was all for Loaiza, who departed charged with eight hits and two walks, and all for Atlanta's offense.

"You prepare and do everything you can," manager Bobby Cox said. "You either do it or you don't and we have a lot of don'ts right now."

The lack of production is distributed throughout the lineup. Chipper Jones, the club's RBI leader, came to the plate with runners in scoring position three times and failed to deliver a hit. Fred McGriff is hitting .169 since July 26 and has not homered since July 28, while Ryan Klesko is batting .150 during the homestand and is without a home run since July 17.

"I guess you're supposed to give the other pitcher credit, so I'll do that," Cox said.

On this night, the odds caught up with the Braves.