ATLANTA -- Entering the dugout following the top of the first inning Monday night, Greg Maddux gave voice to his teammates' thoughts with a curse that would have caused a longshoreman to blush.
Perhaps he should have started the game in the same foul mood.
Aided by a five-run outburst in the first against Maddux, the Cincinnati Reds made short work of the Braves, 6-3, at Turner Field, dropping Atlanta into a first-place tie atop the NL East for the first time since April 25.
"You're embarrassed," said Maddux of his worst first inning since 1990. "You just gave up a five-spot. You have to stay out of a big inning and I didn't do it. We lost it in the first."
The Braves, losers of three straight for the first time in more than two months, could do little with Ron Villone, who became the first Reds left-hander to throw a complete game since Mike Remlinger on July 11, 1998. Villone, called on to replace injured starter Scott Williamson, limited the Braves to five hits and allowed only four runners to advance past first base.
"We're in a stretch where we're not playing that well," center fielder Andruw Jones said. "I wish it could have happened early in the season, rather than late."
Maddux, who had not lost to the Reds since 1996, allowed as many runs in the first inning as in his previous four starts combined. The Reds, who had scored six runs in their last 42 innings against the four-time Cy Young winner, didn't make an out until right fielder Brian Jordan made a terrific diving catch of No. 7 hitter Juan Castro's sinking liner.
Leadoff man Pokey Reese set the tone by launching a 2 and 1 delivery over the left field wall (the first leadoff homer Maddux had allowed since Sept. 28, 1991), then in quick succession the Reds went single, walk, single, single, double, sacrifice fly and single. Only Jordan's catch and Jones' throw to nab Dmitri Young at the plate kept Maddux from posting his worst-ever first inning. As it was, his worst first as a Brave also matched his career-worst, set with the Cubs in 1987 and matched in 1990.
"It was one of those situations where I made some pitches over the middle of the plate and didn't get away with it," said Maddux, who fell to 14-8. "If not for B.J. (Jordan) and Andruw (Jones), who knows what would have happened."
Maddux then pitched seven shutout innings, allowing three hits and striking out three.
"In the first inning, (Maddux) looked like Clark Kent," Reds first base coach Dave Collins said. "In the next seven, he looked like Superman."
With the wind plucked from the Braves' sails, the only remaining question was whether Villone would cough up the lead. Atlanta's feeble response was Paul Bako's third-inning home run and no other runner past first base until the sixth.
Villone, who was told Sunday he would start for Williamson, faced five batters over the minimum through the first eight innings.
Jordan singled with one out in the second, but was erased by B.J. Surhoff's double-play ball. In the fifth, Walt Weiss walked with one out, but Villone retired Bako on a fly to center and Maddux on a fly to right.
The Braves finally advanced a runner in the sixth when Rafael Furcal walked, went to second on Andruw Jones' fly to right, sped to third on Villone's wild pitch (Cincinnati's 83rd wild pitch of the season, tying a club record) and scored on Chipper Jones' sacrifice fly.
"With a five-run lead, you want to be aggressive right away," said Villone, who improved to 9-7. "You don't want to hesitate and slop around and try and bite the corners."
The Braves were 5 1/2 games ahead of the New York Mets when this month began. With 31 games left, they are tied atop the NL East, with six games remaining between the two teams.
"I still believe in this team," first baseman Andres Galarraga said. "I'm trying to keep everybody positive."
But the last word belonged to Maddux.
"The sooner we start playing the way we're capable of playing, the more fun the race will be," he said.