Originally created 07/01/00

Braves' bullpen implodes



NEW YORK -- In the annals of Braves' history, which stretches back to Ulysses S. Grant's administration, there has never been a game like Friday night's Rocker-less nightmare at Shea Stadium.

A game that was wrapped up, tied nice and tight with big apple ribbon, detonated like a Fourth of July bottle rocket, leaving the Braves dazed and shaken in a mausoleum-silent clubhouse.

Kevin Millwood's seven dominant innings were laid to waste by a bullpen that evoked ghastly memories of past pens, the New York Mets matching a club record by scoring 10 runs in the eighth against a trio of relievers to take an 11-8 win over the Braves before a raucous sellout crowd of 52,831.

"It's unexplainable," catcher Javy Lopez said. "I've never seen that in my whole life. Two outs, two strikes on every hitter, and we couldn't get that last strike."

Don Wengert led the parade of bullpen victims, heading for the showers after giving up four hits and four runs, then Kerry Ligtenberg couldn't find the plate and walked in a pair of runs, and Terry Mulholland (8-7) wrapped up one of the worst innings in Atlanta history by giving up Mike Piazza's three-run homer.

"It's not exactly the way I wanted to perform tonight," Mulholland said. "Ideally, you don't want to walk in runs or give up home runs. But I never once felt it was slipping away. Things happen."

The bullpen, shorthanded with Mike Remlinger out with a sore elbow and John Rocker unavailable because of a cut thumb, couldn't find an effective reliever. The Mets sent 13 hitters to the plate and collected six hits and four walks, as many hits as Millwood allowed in seven innings.

The 10 runs was the most the Braves had allowed in a single inning since giving up 11 to the Expos in the fourth inning on June 6, 1979.

As the inning spiraled out of control, all Rocker could do was sit and watch helplessly as the crowd chanted, "We want Rocker! We want Rocker."

"I tried to make throws and I've never felt it hurt so bad," said Rocker, who has tried various remedies to close the cut. "It's a situation I would have come into. I had to sit and watch. That hurts."

The bullpen blowup robbed Millwood of his sixth win, which he deserved after allowing just one run. It also emphasized the Braves' relief plight because besides Remlinger and Rocker on the sidelines, Kevin McGlinchy and Greg McMichael are on the disabled list and Rudy Seanez is out for the season.

That leaves Wengert, a journeyman with unimpressive credentials, a terrific 21-year-old (Jason Marquis) and Ligtenberg, a year removed from elbow surgery, and the unreliable Bruce Chen to carry the load.

Following the game, general manager John Schuerholz was asked whether Friday night's disastrous performance would prompt him to speed his search for bullpen help. No, he said, it was only one game and he didn't plan to rush to make a trade.

Missing Chipper Jones, who returned to Atlanta to be with his wife, who was expecting the couple's first child, the Braves banged out 11 hits, including Brian Jordan's single, double and three-run homer in the eighth, which seemingly put the game out of reach.

And, for seven innings, the support was more than enough for Millwood.

Looking more like the pitcher who finished third in last year's Cy Young voting, rather than the pitcher who was 2-6 with a 6.67 earned run average since May 1, he gave up six hits, walked two and had six strikeouts.

Five days ago, Millwood matched his career high with 13 strikeouts against the Brewers. He didn't whiff his first Met until the fourth, but he was equally effective, giving up just one hit to the first 18 batters he faced.

The difference was, Millwood didn't make any mistakes. Last Sunday he allowed a pair of two-run homers, the last (Marquis Grissom) tying the game in the eighth, which removed a W from beside his name and saddled him with a no-decision.

But after offering one of his best performances, Millwood could only sit and watch in horror as the bullpen blew apart.

"All we needed was one strike," center fielder Andruw Jones said. "They'd get two strikes, then they'd get a hit. That's hard to believe."

Unbelievable was hardly the word for it.

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.