ATLANTA -- The official start of the pennant race beckons today,but leave it to the Chicago Cubs to spoil it before the Braves evenhave a chance to put a forgettable month behind them.
Forced to scramble (again) for offense when an out-of-sorts JohnBurkett delivered his worst performance in five months, not even JavyLopez's two RBI was enough to save the Braves, who closed August thesame way they opened it, 8-2 losers to the Cubs Friday night at TurnerField.
The game was delayed by rain for one hour, 37 minutes after seveninnings, but it didn't halt the Braves' free fall.
The Braves, maintaining their one-game lead over the Phillies inthe NL Least, have lost six of their last eight games, and 14 of 22.They are now 33-37 at home, and finished August with a 12-16 record. Lopez's first multi-RBI game since Aug. 9 was not nearly enough tobeat the Cubs, who are playing with the desperation of a team thatowned first place for much of the summer and wants it back.
A decade-long lovefest between Atlanta and the Braves is apparentlyover. On a night when Sammy Sosa and baseball's lovable losers broughttogether all the elements of October playoff baseball -- twounflappable teams, charged emotions, and an electric atmosphere --the Braves drew 12,000 less than a full house.
And a majority of the crowd of 37,045 acted as if it had beenimported en masse from The Cubby Bear on the corner of Clark andAddison in the Windy City.
Burkett, unbeaten since July 24, spotted the Cubs a 3-0 lead, andex-Brave Fred McGriff had a hand in the first two runs.
Leadoff man Eric Young's single and stolen base, and McGriff'sone-out single got the Cubs on the board in the first, and Burkett raninto more trouble in the fourth when he walked McGriff. Ricky Gutierrezfollowed with a triple that spun past Gold Glove center fielder AndruwJones and rolled to the wall.
McGriff sped home, Matt Stairs was intentionally walked, and ToddHundley delivered a run-scoring single to make it 3-0.
Gutierrez, who had two of Chicago's 12 hits, opened the sixth witha single, and Stairs drained the night of any remaining drama when hecaught up with a Burkett fastball and launched it into the center fieldseats to give the Cubs a 5-1 lead.
The Braves had a chance to score in the second when Brian Jordanwas hit by a pitch and B.J. Surhoff walked, but Cubs rookie starterJuan Cruz breezed through the next three batters -- Javy Lopez, WesHelms and Rey Sanchez -- by coaxing harmless fly balls.
The Braves broke through against Cruz in the fourth when Surhoffripped a two-out double into the right field corner, and Lopez sent aline single to left.
But that was all the offense the Braves mustered against the20-year-old right-hander until Lopez hit his 14th home run, his firstsince Aug. 16, into the left field seats with two outs in the sixth.
Cruz was gone after that inning, but a team that is 18-46 whenscoring three runs or fewer couldn't touch the Cubs' bullpen. TheBraves, 4-0 losers to the Cardinals Aug. 1, advanced two runners beyondfirst base in the last three innings, ending a disquieting month assilently as it began.