ATLANTA -- There was a time not so long ago when the Atlanta Braves could trot out a fourth starter and feel good about matching him against anyone else's No. 1 pitcher.
Those were the good old days.
On the heels of Terry Mulholland's 3 2/3 -innings disaster Friday night, the Braves are starting to grasp a problem the rest of baseball has grappled with for years.
Mulholland's early exit in a 6-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants before 35,343 fans at Turner Field creates more questions about Atlanta's shaky rotation. Taking his first turn in the No. 4 slot, the veteran left-hander was stung repeatedly by the long ball, serving up homers to Barry Bonds, Bobby Estalella and Jeff Kent, and not a cheap one among them.
Andruw Jones spent much of his evening with his back pressed against the center field wall. Bonds' two-run shot in the first inning landed just beyond his leap, and there was no doubt about Kent's blast in the fourth, a rocket into the right-center field stands.
When Gardner, a career .129 hitter, sent a sharp single up the middle to load the bases in the fourth, Mulholland headed for the showers.
"We got a little work tonight," Jones said. "That's not Mulholland. Usually he's a ground ball pitcher."
Mulholland, who will get another turn against his ex-mates in Chicago next week, walked away with five runs, four earned, next to his name. More ominously, his poor performance places additional pressure on Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Kevin Millwood to produce big numbers, both in innings and wins, to compensate for the problems at the tail end of the rotation.
"I made enough mistakes to get me in the situations I ended up in," said Mulholland, who
beat the Giants for his 100th career win in his first start with the Braves last August. "I'd get guys where I wanted them, but then I wasn't putting them away. It's not the performance I was looking for tonight."
Mulholland's outing set the tone for a miserable evening. After producing nine runs against the Rockies on Wednesday, Atlanta's lineup failed to hit with runners on base and turned Gardner, a journeyman with a career 83-81 record, into Cy Young.
Gardner, replacing Shawn Estes in the rotation, stranded two runners in the first, forced a double-play grounder from Chipper Jones to end the fifth and worked out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam in the sixth. His only mistakes were 0-1 deliveries; Andruw Jones sent his second homer soaring into the left field stands in the second and Javy Lopez launched his first homer in the eighth.
Gardner did his best work with men on base. He gave up 10 hits, but stranded nine runners and struck out four. The turning point came in the sixth when Lopez singled and Bobby Bonilla doubled him to third. Andruw Jones walked, then Gardner induced pinch-hitter Wally Joyner to pop out and got Rafael Furcal on a fly to end the rally.
"Gardner was hitting his spots," Lopez said. "He was throwing the ball on the corners all the time. He barely gave any pitches around the middle of the plate."
The only bright spot on a gloomy evening for the Braves was the work turned in by a pair of young relievers. Luis Rivera lit up the radar gun -- his fastball consistently was in the 95-98 mph range during two scoreless innings -- and Bruce Chen, who pitched two shutout innings Wednesday, turned in a scoreless ninth.
The way the rotation is shaping up, both kids could be taking a regular turn before long.