MIAMI -- Things could be worse, though as the Braves push aside their curtains this morning and look across the sapphire waters of South Florida, they might have trouble figuring out how.
A game that was ripe for the picking Monday night got away from a club that's treating its bats with the same trepidation atomic workers use in handling plutonium.
But it wasn't just their bats that allowed this one to escape.
The Braves watched in stunned amazement as John Rocker dropped the ball while on the pitching rubber and was called for a balk in the bottom of the ninth inning, sending the winning run across the plate and delivering a 3-2 series-opening win to the Florida Marlins before a gathering of 14,024 at Pro Player Stadium.
"I thought somebody was chasing (Rocker) on the field, the way everybody was going," left fielder Bobby Bonilla said. "I stood there in amazement. I'd never seen it before. I actually had to ask Wally Joyner about the rule. Something strange was going to happen and it did."
Rocker took over for Rudy Seanez with two outs in the ninth and walked pinch hitter Mark Smith. Cliff Floyd was next and with the count 2 and 2, Rocker, fidgeting as usual on the mound, dropped the ball.
For a moment, everyone froze. Then, Marlins third base coach Fredi Gonzalez shouted and pointed, and the umpires signaled a balk, allowing ex-Brave Danny Bautista to carry the winning run home.
"I think the umpires didn't really want to call it, but they couldn't ignore it," third baseman Chipper Jones said.
Rocker, approached by reporters afterward, offered sarcastically, "I'm just a horrible player."
The last time a balk won a game in the National League? Braves-Marlins, of course, back on July 4, 1993, when Florida pitcher Matt Turner balked home Deion Sanders to give the Braves a 4-3 win.
"I couldn't believe it," Marlins manager John Boles said. "Of all the ways to win a game, a balk is the last thing you expected."
The Braves had a chance to tie the best 31-game start in Atlanta history with a win, but they failed to out-hit an opponent in a seventh straight game, stranding seven runners and going 1 for 8 with men in scoring position.
A third straight loss instead matched their worst skid of the season and dropped them to 1-4 since reeling off 15 straight wins.
"(Floyd) might have gotten a hit, but you'd like him to work a little harder for it," said Greg Maddux, who allowed two unearned runs in seven innings. "It's unfortunate. The timing wasn't very good for it."
Maddux would have come away with his 29th career shutout if not for Rafael Furcal's first-inning error. Hurrying to turn Preston Wilson's grounder into an inning-ending double play, the 19-year-old shortstop fumbled the ball, then watched it bounce off a sliding Floyd and kick into left field.
A run scored on the miscue, then Mike Lowell's roller made it 2-0, a lead Vladimir Nunez made stand up until the sixth.
Nunez, a 25-year-old right-hander with limited experience as a starter, nonetheless handled the Braves like a veteran. Of course, the way the Braves have been swinging the bats lately, particularly with runners in scoring position, every pitcher looks like Pedro Martinez.
Continuing their search for a clutch hit, the Braves left a runner at second in the second, then another in the fourth, bumping their three-day total to 23 runners stranded.
In the fifth, Maddux took offensive matters into his own hands, following Furcal's walk with a single just inside first base, sending Furcal home with the first RBI delivered by a Braves pitcher this season.
Nunez was punished for his wildness in the sixth, though the Braves failed to capitalize fully on his tenuous grasp of the strike zone. After filling the bases with walks to Quilvio Veras, Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones with no outs, Nunez induced a double-play grounder from Andres Galarraga as Veras crossed the plate with the game-tying run, then coaxed a roller from Brian Jordan to leave another runner in scoring position.
"We went for a long time getting a lot of breaks and now they're going against us," Chipper Jones said. "If we catch the ball in the first inning, we don't put ourselves in that position.
"It's kind of fluky."
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