MIAMI -- The season's low point, the Braves believed, was a three-game sweep in the chilly confines of Wrigley Field last month.
Those games were only a shallow crater compared with the canyon-sized hole the Braves plummeted into Thursday night, 5-4 losers to the Marlins and a pair of pitchers making their major league debuts at Pro Player Stadium, despite turning the club's first triple play in 14 years.
The Braves, who have lost five of seven games since reeling off 15 wins in a row, searched in vain for a big hit. Rookies Jason Grilli and Joe Strong, less than 24 hours removed from Class AAA Calgary, retired the Braves in order just once but stranded 11 runners in front of a crowd of 14,587.
"It's disgusting," right fielder Brian Jordan said. "The bottom line is, we're not producing in situations. They did, that's why they won. They out-played us. You can't win if your three through five hitters aren't picking up runners."
In his finest hour, Grilli did what so many other youngsters have done to the Braves over the years. The 23-year-old right-hander, who had an 11.17 ERA this spring, was 1-3 with a 7.34 ERA in six starts at Class AAA Calgary and was ranked as just the Marlins' eighth-best prospect by Baseball America, pulled the Braves' strings like a master puppeteer.
"I couldn't sleep the last couple of nights," Grilli said. "I kept seeing Andres Galarraga at the plate and me throwing strikes over the corners."
The Braves, who failed to produce a hit after loading the bases 14 times during the series, came away with only a 1-0 lead on Jordan's bases-jammed roller in the first.
In the fourth, Rafael Furcal demonstrated why he's already one of the game's most exciting players. He walked, stole second (his ninth steal in 11 attempts), then dashed home on Kevin Millwood's sacrifice bunt, barely beating second baseman Luis Castillo's throw.
Moments later, Quilvio Veras, haunting his former club with seven hits in the series, sent Fernando Lunar, who singled for his first major league hit, to the plate with the game-tying run.
Grilli, who lasted only 3 2/3 innings and gave up nine hits and seven runs to Memphis in his last start, allowed 11 hits to the Braves but only four runs.
"You always like to think you can beat somebody who's just been called up," said Chipper Jones, who had a pair of hits but popped up with the bases loaded in the second. "The fact is, you don't know what he's got, you don't know his tendencies, it takes awhile to adjust."
Millwood squandered his good fortune. Struggling with his command, he gave up Cliff Floyd's sacrifice fly in the first, then left a 3 and 2 fastball over the heart of the plate, and Preston Wilson launched a 452-foot home run over the left-center field wall to make it 3-1.
In the fifth, after Floyd walked and Wilson singled, Bobby Cox waved to the bullpen. Greg McMichael, Millwood's successor, made it look easy. Mike Lowell, in a 12-pitch at-bat, bounced hard at Jones, who stepped on third, whirled and threw to Veras, who relayed to Galarraga to complete the Braves' first triple play since June 5, 1986.
"I had a feeling he was going to hit the ball to me," Jones said. "If I could get two out of it, that would be a bonus."
Furcal helped create another run in the fifth, singling and scoring on Millwood's hit, making it 5-4. Jones' second hit of the game, a double off the teal scoreboard in left field, was wasted in the sixth, then Bobby Bonilla was stranded on second in the seventh.
Grilli gave way to the 37-year-old Strong in the seventh, the oldest player to make his major league debut since 41-year-old Diomedes Olivo appeared for the Pirates in 1960.
Strong, whose travels have taken him from Taiwan to Korea to Mexico, worked through a hitless eighth, then turned the game over to closer Antonio Alfonseca, who picked up his 11th save.
"It's like a broken record," Jones said. "We get opportunities but can't get the big hit. We're constantly climbing up a hill."
Right now that hill looks a lot like Mt. Everest.
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