Originally created 05/18/98

Lack of offense hurts Braves



HOUSTON -- Discussing the National League's most productive offense the other day, Bobby Cox acknowledged the obvious.

"We know we're not going to keep scoring like we have been," he said. "Nobody can do it all season."

That reality has hit home in Texas. An offense that was scoring runs in bunches several days ago has dried up and blown away like a desert tumbleweed.

The result is as predictable as another hazy day in Houston. It's been nearly three weeks since the Atlanta Braves lost consecutive games, but they head into this afternoon's series finale needing a win to salvage a split of the four games.

Limited to one run by a pitcher who had a career 11.45 ERA against them, the Braves managed just four hits Sunday afternoon and looked downright uncomfortable in a stadium they have owned for several years, losing 8-1 to the Astros before a crowd of 35,250 fans at the Astrodome.

"We haven't swung the bats real well the last three days," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "You've got to credit their pitching staff. It will be an interesting little rivalry from here on out, I'm sure."

John Smoltz entered the game riding the best start of his career, a winner of his first four decisions and 5-0 with a 1.81 ERA dating back to last Sept. 19. But the right-hander was off his game, lasting only four innings and allowing 10 hits, four walks and eight runs, matching the second-most runs he's ever allowed in 308 career starts.

After loading the bases with walks to the first three hitters he faced in the first inning, Smoltz escaped without giving up a run, but the highwire act didn't last long. The Astros scored twice in the third, four runs poured across in the fourth and two more crossed the plate in the fifth.

By the time Smoltz (4-1) headed for the clubhouse, 15 of the 24 hitters he faced had reached base and he was left searching for answers.

"I felt after the first inning I was going to roll because I got out of an incredible jam," he said. "Sometimes they hit you. It's only one bad start out of seven and I'd like to keep that ratio going."

Sean Bergman had never beaten the Braves in seven games, but he looked like a different pitcher than the one who had been tagged for 23 hits and 14 runs in 11 innings. The right-hander pitched four perfect innings and retired the first 13 hitters he faced before Ryan Klesko belted his seventh homer in the fifth, a drive that barely made the flower bed in left-center field.

Bergman (4-2) went eight innings and departed without issuing a walk and with six strikeouts, hardly the numbers you would expect from a pitcher who lasted only 4 2/3 innings in his last start against the Braves, a 9-3 loss in 1996 while he was with the Padres.

"I think (pitching coach) Vern Ruhle and (manager) Larry Dierker have done a great job with that guy," Cox said. "I can see Vern Ruhle written all over that kid."

Bergman exploited the Braves' aggressive approach, changing speeds and throwing strikes only when he was forced to. Walt Weiss and Keith Lockhart never did figure him out, going hitless in six at-bats, while the best Jones, Andres Galarraga and Klesko could do was a pair of late doubles and the home run.

"We got ourselves out today. We swung at all those sliders and changeups off the plate," Jones said. "But to his credit, even after he got up 8-1, he kept on pitching."

Now all the Braves have to do is beat Mike Hampton, a winner of six of seven decisions, today. For a lineup that entered the series averaging nearly 10 hits a game, but has only 13 hits in three games, that's a Texas-sized order.

Atlanta -- 0 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 0 -- 1 4 0
Houston -- 0 0 2 4 2 0 0 0 x -- 8 10 0

LOB -- Atlanta 3, Houston 6. 2B -- ChJones (9), Galarraga (7), Alou 2 (11), Everett (8), Hidalgo (5). HR -- Howell (1) off Smoltz; Klesko (7) off Bergman. RBIs -- Klesko (27), Spiers (13), Alou 4 (37), Everett (17), Howell 2 (6). SB -- Biggio (17), Spiers (2). GIDP -- Bogar.

Runners left in scoring position -- Atlanta 2 (Galarraga, JLopez); Houston 4 (Biggio, Howell 3).

DP -- Atlanta 1 (Weiss, Lockhart and Galarraga).