ST. LOUIS -- Kerry Ligtenberg knew the good times would end eventually, though he hoped it wouldn't be as costly as it turned out.
The closer, perfect in 18 straight save opportunities since May 23, blew a save in the ninth inning Friday night and the Braves lost 5-4 in 10 innings. That was a climax to three straight appearances in which Ligtenberg had allowed a run, so Friday's meltdown was hardly a surprise.
Manager Bobby Cox responded by admitting he might have erred in using Ligtenberg for the 14th time in 25 games this month and indicated he would give him two days off to rest.
"His fastball is a little bit shorter," Cox said. "I really hesitated bringing him in, but he said he felt great. I think he's a little tired, he probably hasn't pitched this much in his career."
Describing it as "a reality check," Ligtenberg acknowledged the obvious. The 64 games and 62 2/3 innings he's worked in five months is the most of his pro career and when he's tired he tends to open his delivery too much, which causes his pitches to cut back across the plate. That's exactly what happened in consecutive at-bats in the ninth, first to Ron Gant, then to Fernando Tatis.
Ryan Klesko made a leaping catch of Gant's drive, robbing him of a home run, but Tatis hit Ligtenberg's pitch into the left-center field stands to tie the game.
"I just feel I've been throwing quite a bit and and I'm just dragging a little," Ligtenberg said. "When I'm tired I try to generate a little extra and start to muscle up, rather than be nice and loose. When I get all tight, I open up and the ball runs back."
The blown save was Ligtenberg's third in 27 opportunities this season, a ratio that's among the best in the majors. Earlier in the season a disastrous ninth inning would have left him steamed for 48 hours, but he's learned to accept an occasional failure and move on.
"I realize I can't be perfect," he said. "That stuff is going to happen and if I want to do this I'm going to have to learn to deal with it."
Cox used Rudy Seanez to close Saturday's game and besides a two-out walk to Tatis, the right-hander with a 98 m.p.h. fastball, had no problems. He worked a scoreless ninth for his second save, but said afterward he was more comfortable in a setup role.
"It's not my job, I'm just filling in," Seanez said. "I just like having a job, period."
CHARLTON UNCERTAINTY: Since he was called up from Class AAA Richmond on Aug. 11, veteran reliever Norm Charlton has made only three appearances and it's uncertain whether he'll be included on the postseason roster. But with three pitchers (Damian Moss, Pedro Borbon and Mark Wohlers) on the disabled list, Charlton could replace one before the playoffs start, so Cox isn't concerned with making a decision now.
"We've still got a long time," he said. "The (August) 31st (deadline) means nothing."
Charlton didn't pitch well in his first appearance, but in two subsequent outings, he's been solid. Cox would like to have another left-hander in the bullpen, but it's difficult to make an evaluation based on 3 1/3 innings, so the club will apply a wait-and-see attitude.
"It's a strange feeling to be sitting out there and watching," said Charlton, who made a career-high 71 appearances for Seattle last year. "But when you step back and look at it, the starters have been doing a good job and everybody is pitching well."
LOCKHART BACK: Second baseman Keith Lockhart missed five games with a strained hamstring, then singled as a pinch hitter in Friday's game and was in Saturday's lineup. The Braves were happy to have him back. Tony Graffanino has been unable to climb out of a 6-for-32 slump and Cox became so desperate to inject some life into the bottom third of the order he gave Ozzie Guillen his first career start at second base in the first game of the series.
LOOKING ASUBHEAD: One of the best pitching matchups of the season will also give the Braves an advance look at Randy Johnson as the Astros left-hander will face Greg Maddux in the finale of a three-game series Wednesday night at Turner Field.
In the first two games John Smoltz will face Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle will oppose Sean Bergman.