ST. LOUIS - An offense projected to be the Atlanta Braves' best in years, has fallen on its collective face.
Vinny Castilla is batting .200. Javy Lopez isn't hitting (.194) his weight. Gary Sheffield has stumbled to a .207 average. The team's .235 average is the league's fourth-worst, and its 111 runs ranks ahead of just four other teams.
The Braves are averaging 7.4 runners left on base per game, their .311 on-base percentage is worse than every team except the San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers and the Pittsburgh Pirates, and with 217 strikeouts, they are on pace to top last year's total of 1,039.
"It's my responsibility to be concerned about this lineup," said left fielder Chipper Jones, the only regular hitting .300. "I'm one of the catalysts and one of the leaders. I've sat here for the last seven years and listened to people say how this offense doesn't support the pitching staff. Maybe it's something in the water in Atlanta. It's one of those things you can't explain.
"It's frustrating. We have to stick together as a unit, pull for each other, and try to help each other."
If not for Jones, the offense would probably rank as the major league's worst. He leads the club in most offensive categories except home runs, ranks among league leaders in several departments, and is on pace for another 100-RBI, 100-run season.
"Last year I went the whole season without an 0-for-5," said Jones, who leads the league with a .478 average with runners in scoring position. "Already this year, I have an 0-for-5 and an 0-for-6, so I feel fortunate to be hitting what I am."
Jones's 11-game hitting streak ended Thursday, but he started another one with an 11th-inning home run to win Friday's game, then was 1-for-3 in Saturday's 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
"Hitting streaks are a sign of consistency," he said. "I just came off a decent one, but I backed it up with an 0-for-5, which hurts. The key to an 0-for-5 is starting a new hitting streak right away."
NO BENCH HELP: The hitters on the bench are struggling even more than the regulars. Keith Lockhart is 1-for-20 as a pinch hitter, and his overall average stands at .125. Julio Franco is 1-for-11 off the bench and is batting .157.
The bench has contributed just one pinch-hit RBI in 48 at-bats this season, leading to speculation the team will make some changes soon.
Matt Franco, who would have made the team out of spring training if manager Bobby Cox had not decided to carry an extra pitcher, is batting .292 with 14 RBI at Class AAA Richmond. Travis Wilson is hitting .301 and his 14 RBI are tied for the club's second-best total.
It's not hard to imagine either hitter, or both, being recalled soon if Lockhart and Franco don't start hitting.
YOU MAKE THE CALL: Reliever Kevin Gryboski is making this week's roster decision an interesting one.
The right-hander, who has an 0.90 ERA in eight games since he was recalled from Class AAA Richmond on April 9, may not return to the minor leagues when Jason Marquis is activated from the disabled list.
"I'm trying to make it a tough decision for them," said Gryboski, who worked two scoreless innings Saturday.
Gryboski, 28, was acquired from the Seattle Mariners in January in a deal that received little notice. But he caught Cox's eye late in spring training with a hard sinker, and since allowing a run in his major-league debut April 13, he's made seven appearances without giving up another one.
"I don't know what we're going to do," Cox said. "But he's pitched really good."
If Gryboski stays, the likely candidate to go down is Kerry Ligtenberg, who has given up 14 hits and 14 walks in 11 2/3 innings.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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