SAN DIEGO -- For nearly six months the Braves have kept their sights firmly on October, knowing their season really doesn't begin until the playoffs start.
Imagine their surprise if the postseason opens without them.
That remained a distinct possibility following Wednesday night's 4-1 loss at Qualcomm Stadium to a Padres club that last saw .500 nearly two months ago, completing a woeful West Coast swing that saw the Braves lose two of three games in both cities.
With 15 games left, the loss trimmed the Braves' lead to one game over the Mets, who arrive in Atlanta Tuesday for the start of a three-game series.
In a game that was a microcosm of the trip, the Braves couldn't figure out another Padres starter with an ERA close to 5.00 and rolled into four double plays. They managed four singles, didn't have an RBI hit and advanced three runners past first base.
"We'd better snap out of it," Chipper Jones said. "We didn't swing the bats very well on this trip. I think frustrated is a good word to use."
Since 1993, the Padres had presented little trouble for John Smoltz. He was 8-0 with a 1.49 ERA in 10 starts against them since a 2-1 defeat in Atlanta six years ago. But he was snake-bit in the first when Quilvio Veras chopped a 30-foot single and Tony Gwynn bounced an RBI double an inch inside the foul line.
Ben Davis' fifth home run came in the second and there was nothing cheap about it. He met a fastball he liked and toured the bases after sending it over the left field wall, the third homer Smoltz had allowed in his last 15 innings.
Smoltz, who has just one win in his last 14 starts, retired the side in order only two times. He escaped a first-and-third, one-out jam in the third by forcing a double-play ball from John Vander Wal, then ducked trouble in the fourth after allowing successive singles to Wally Joyner and Davis with no outs.
Two runs was Smoltz's limit. He got stronger, yielding only a single over the next three innings, allowing the Braves to climb back into the game.
"I really feel like I'm pitching as good as I can pitch," he said. "You can't get a lot of happiness out of losses. I keep thinking I'm going to shut somebody out. I feel I have that kind of stuff right now."
They were still in the game until the eighth, when Joyner crushed a Mike Remlinger pitch over the center field wall for a two-run homer, his first in 155 at-bats, making the ninth a stroll through the park for closer Trevor Hoffman.
Padres starter Matt Clement, who had beaten only the Marlins and Expos since July 1, made the Braves look less like a division leader than a team tired of the West Coast. Looking as formidable as Woody Williams did on Monday night, he changed speeds and kept the Braves pounding the ball into the ground. He refused to allow a runner to reach scoring position, forcing Brian Jordan to roll into a double play in the fourth and Jose Hernandez to duplicate the feat the next inning.
In the sixth the Braves finally advanced a runner past first base when Clement hit Eddie Perez with a pitch and Gerald Williams singled. A wild pitch advanced the runners, then Bret Boone's grounder trimmed the lead to 2-1. Given an opportunity to tie the game, Jones went down swinging, only his second strikeout on the six-game trip.
The Braves mounted a threat in the seventh with their first multi-hit inning, compliments of singles by Ryan Klesko and Andruw Jones, but Hernandez doused the rally with another double-play ball.
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