ATLANTA -- It's on-the-job training for the new first baseman. Givehim a week and he'll feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
"It feels good to play in the big leagues again, but I feel bad welost the game," new arrival Julio Franco said Saturday afternoon afteryet another loss by the Braves, this one by a 5-3 score to the ChicagoCubs at Turner Field. "I'm not going to put pressure on myselfthinking this is a different level."
If this one had a similar feel to a dozen others during a pennantrace that seems more like a death spiral, it's because the Braves havescored three runs or fewer in three straight games, five of their lastsix, and 14 of 21.
That's not a slump, it's a slumber party.
"We're just one or two hits short of winning games," saidoutfielder Dave Martinez, who helped fuel a ninth-inning rally againstCubs closer Tom Gordon with a walk. "But we can't seem to get that onebig hit we need."
No, the big hit belonged to the other guys. Sammy Sosa made it amemorable day for the crowd of 45,842 with a monster mash in the firstinning against Greg Maddux, sending a 3 and 2 fastball hurtling on acourse that would have lit up Hartsfield Airport radar screens if ithadn't struck about halfway up the center field wall.
The announced distance? A mere 471 feet, dwarfing Jeromy Burnitz's454-foot shot last year, the longest in Turner Field's brief history.
"I've never seen a home run hit as far as that," Cubs winnerJulian Tavarez said. "It's got to be at least 600 feet. I'm like, ohmy God, we're going to win this game against Maddux."
Sosa, who had 17 home runs in August, the same total produced byChipper Jones, Brian Jordan, Andruw Jones and B.J. Surhoff, deliveredhis 53rd home run for a 2-0 lead.
And no, in case you were wondering, Maddux didn't entertain thenotion of walking Sosa with first base open, figuring a down-and-infastball would result in nothing more harmful than a run-scoringroller.
"A run in the first inning isn't going to kill you," said Maddux,whose fastball found the middle of the plate. "If I make a betterpitch, we go from there. Sammy is way too good a hitter to miss a pitchlike that."
Maddux (17-8) trailed 3-1 in the third when Corey Patterson'ssacrifice fly sent in Rondell White. It became 5-2 when Ricky Gutierrezdelivered a two-out double in the fifth, scoring Bill Mueller and Sosa. The Cubs played with the energy of a team in a pennant race. TheBraves? Their collective energies wouldn't fuel a lantern.
"If you're losing, you're trying to make something happen, and itshouldn't be that way," Andruw Jones said. "The way things have gonethe last three days, they score in the first inning and we try and dotoo much to get the runs back."
Leadoff man Marcus Giles opened the first with a triple, a sinkingliner that scooted past a diving Sosa, and Chipper Jones delivered aninfield single for his first RBI in 10 games.
With two outs in the fifth, Jones launched his 33rd home run, a429-foot drive into the right field seats that made it 5-3.
The Braves were still down two runs when Jordan tripled againstthe right field wall off reliever Kyle Farnsworth in the eighth. ButFarnsworth coaxed Surhoff to pop out, and struck out a slumping AndruwJones (2 for 21) on three pitches to end the threat.
The outcome was still in doubt when Gordon, who has converted hislast 19 save opportunities, escaped a two-on, two-out jam in the ninthby striking out Franco.
"The difference between winning and losing is not a lot in mostgames," Surhoff said. "Our pitchers have done a great job and we needto help them out a little bit."
Has a familiar ring to it, doesn't it?