SAN DIEGO -- If the Braves are sitting home in October watching the playoffs on TV, they will point to this West Coast trip as the seat of their undoing.
A two-city swing that started so well with a Friday night victory at 3Com Park has begun to crumble around them like a leaking seawall. After five and a half months of holding all the parts together with baling wire and glue, the collective talents of this club aren't enough with the finish line in sight.
With a Mets' victory glaring at them from the right field scoreboard, the Braves mustered little energy and no offense during Monday night's 3-0 loss to the Padres at Qualcomm Stadium, squeezing a division race just a little bit tighter and reminding onlookers this season still has three weeks remaining.
"We said a month ago we're going to have to battle to win the division," second baseman Bret Boone said. "I'll still take this team against anybody."
With three straight losses, their longest skid since dropping five straight from July 17-21, the Braves have allowed the Mets to close the gap to one game, their smallest division lead since leading by a half-game on Aug. 23. This is no longer about winning an eighth straight division championship, but about claiming a spot in the postseason.
The Reds won for a seventh straight time against the Marlins Monday afternoon, leaving them 2 12 games out in the wild card race and tightening the three-spots-for-four-teams scramble among the Braves, Mets, Astros and Reds.
Terry Mulholland has stepped into the rotation and delivered a series of solid performances. After a shaky start he settled down and kept the Braves in the game with five innings of three-run ball. But the early runs he allowed upped the pressure on a lineup that's suddenly struggling to deliver hits when they're needed the most.
The Padres, last year's opponent in the NLCS and this year's third-place team, had no such problems. In the second, Chris Gomez and pitcher Woody Williams produced two-out RBI hits, then a two-out walk to Phil Nevin in the third led to another run. Mulholland worked out of a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the fifth and departed for a pinch hitter in the sixth.
Since beating the Diamondbacks 7-3 10 days ago, the Braves have scored more than four runs just twice in eight games and they made Williams look like he deserved immediate enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. They wasted Ryan Klesko's double in the second. Andruw Jones, who has rolled into a double play in three straight games, wiped out Klesko's leadoff single in the fifth. Gerald Williams produced a two-out single in the sixth, but Boone continued his slide with a strikeout.
Reporter: "Was Williams that good?"
Brian Jordan: "Nah. We were that bad. We didn't swing the bats well."
Williams had mastery of three pitches and the Braves were so off-balance they failed to muster consecutive hits and never had more than one runner on base until the ninth. It was as disheartening an offensive performance as the Braves had experienced in weeks and unless the lineup collects itself and finds some West Coast rhythm, they could return home in second place.
"As many breaks as we've got the last two weeks, we're getting zero now," Bobby Cox said.