PHILADELPHIA -- This is becoming more painful by the moment.
If watching their grasp on the National League East slip with each passing day wasn't alarming enough to the Atlanta Braves, certainly the possible loss of catcher Javy Lopez for the season caused considerable consternation in the home office on Hank Aaron Drive.
Knee-deep in the worst stretch of the season, the Braves woke up this morning with their lead down to a skinny half-game over the Mets and only 4 1/2 games over the never-say-die Phillies. Philadelphia climbed from another hole Saturday night and took advantage of a floundering bullpen to steal a second game from the Braves, 4-3, before a heated-up crowd of 30,167 fans at Veterans Stadium.
"The baseball gods aren't on our side at the moment," third baseman Chipper Jones said. "There's a high level of frustration in our clubhouse right now."
The loss, Atlanta's seventh in 11 games on the trip, wasn't even the worst news. Beating out an infield hit in the sixth inning, Lopez reinjured his right knee and will miss this afternoon's game. He will be evaluated today, then undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in Atlanta on Monday.
If Lopez, who was on the disabled list from June 21-July 15 with a sprained knee, can't make it back, general manager John Schuerholz will be forced to swing a trade for a veteran catcher before the July 31 trading deadline.
"We're battling through a bunch of injuries," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "If Javy can't come back, it's going to be a big loss."
Activated from the disabled list before the game and making his first start since July 4, John Smoltz worked five strong innings and showed off a dominant fastball and hard slider. Cautious about his tender right elbow, he departed in the sixth when the humidity and home plate umpire Bruce Froemming caught up with him.
Doug Glanville started the rally with a double, then Smoltz struck out Ron Gant with an 0-2 fastball that appeared to catch clearly caught the plate, but Froemming missed it and Gant singled on the next pitch.
That fueled Smoltz's anger and ignited manager Bobby Cox. Bobby Abreu followed with another single and Cox came out to get Smoltz. On his return to the dugout, Cox gave Froemming a right-arm salute, which earned him his seventh ejection.
"It ruined the whole game," said Cox of the missed third strike. "It cost Smoltz a win. It's a shame. That's an out with a man on second and a threerun lead. I'll take my chances with that."
Still fuming after the game, Smoltz said, "(Froemming) missed it. That's all I can say. Ron (Gant) was a big atbat. I made a good pitch. I don't ever get mad ... all in all, it's frustrating."
For the second time in three games, the bullpen was sliced and diced by the Phils. Mike Remlinger, who's worked seven innings during the trip and allowed 12 hits and eight runs, came on and poured gasoline on the blaze. He was tagged for three hits and a run while getting only two outs, then Micah Bowie made his major-league debut a forgettable one by yielding the winning run on Abreu's RBI single in the seventh.
"We've got to bear down in the late innings," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "We can't afford to lose games like that. It's happening over and over. We've got to hold guys."
After loading the bases with no outs and failing to score in the first inning, Atlanta's lineup jumped off to a 3-0 lead against Phillies starter Chad Ogea with a pair of long balls. Andruw Jones rocketed a pitch into the left- field seats in the fourth for a two-run homer, then Ryan Klesko unloaded his 16th home run deep into the right-field stands in the sixth.
The Braves threatened twice more, but couldn't deliver a clutch hit. Walt Weiss walked in the seventh and was on third with two outs, but Bret Boone went down swinging, then Eddie Perez stranded pinch runner Otis Nixon on second base in the eighth.
"There's no cure for this other than to keep playing hard," Chipper Jones said. "Hopefully things will turn around soon."