Originally created 05/05/02

Offense struggles in loss



ST. LOUIS - This is how bad it has become for an Atlanta Braves offense that is counting down its recent run totals - four, three, two - like it's New Year's Eve:

The Braves generated less offense against St. Louis Cardinals starter Jason Simontacchi in Saturday afternoon's 3-2 loss before 42,455 fans at Busch Stadium than the Omaha Royals did last week against the pride of the Italian national team.

"You can't ask for anything more from our pitchers, and we're just not supporting them," said second baseman Marcus Giles, whose fourth-inning home run was the Braves' first hit against Simontacchi. "It's tough to be patient with our offense right now. But we've just got to have faith that it will come around."

Simontacchi, 28, was making his major-league debut. Four years ago the right-hander pitched for Springfield (Ill.) in the independent Frontier League. Two years ago he pitched in the Italian Professional League, then toiled for the Italian Olympic Team in Sydney, Australia.

What better candidate to retire the first 10 Braves he faced?

"I never dreamed of playing in the Olympics," said Simontacchi, who was recalled from Class AAA Memphis on Friday and pitched seven innings, giving up two runs on five hits. "It's every kid's dream to play in the major leagues. But the game is the same. I've been all over the world, and it's the same thing. My experience in being around helped me in not getting amped up."

Said Braves manager Bobby Cox: "How did he ever lose in the Olympics? He's no ordinary (minor-league) guy. The guy was good. He made a lot of great pitches."

The Braves were limited to six hits, and were 0-for-4 with runners in scoring position, dropping their collective batting average to .235, .220 with runners in scoring position.

Say this for the Braves: They don't go down without a fight. Gary Sheffield opened the ninth against Cards closer Jason Isringhausen with a single through the middle, then Julio Franco drew a two-out walk, but pinch hitter Darren Bragg went down swinging to end the game.

"(Simontacchi) isn't going to blow you away with anything, but he spotted his pitches well and changed speeds enough to neutralize most of our lineup," said left fielder Chipper Jones, who had a single and walk in four trips. "I thought he pitched pretty good."

Albie Lopez, the $4 million pitcher signed to replace John Burkett, pitched just well enough to lose. The right-hander has lost all three of his starts and has a 4.24 ERA. Burkett, meanwhile, is 2-0 with a 2.00 ERA for the Red Sox.

In each of his three starts, Lopez has lasted less than six innings. He gave up five runs in a 9-3 loss to the Mets in his first outing, allowed two runs in a 7-1 loss to the Astros on April 28 and Saturday gave up three runs on 10 hits.

"I can't say I did a good job because we lost," said Lopez, who fell to 1-3. "I'm looking forward to the day I win a start for this team."

Fernando Vina opened the third with a triple to right-center and Kerry Robinson doubled to the same spot. J.D. Drew's smash caromed off Lopez for a hit and Tino Martinez sent a sacrifice fly to center to make it 2-0.

In the fourth, Edgar Renteria sent a double past third baseman Vinny Castilla, and one out later Placido Polanco lined a single to right to score Renteria with what eventually turned out to be the winning run.

"I pitched better today, but I'm still not happy with it," Lopez said. "If the other pitcher gives up two runs, I need to give up one."

The state of the Braves' offense? The lineup hasn't scored more than three runs since April 26, a stretch of six games.

Giles spoiled Simontacchi's perfection when he launched a 1-and-2 delivery into the Braves bullpen in the fourth, a drive estimated at 404 feet, then Castilla steered a single into right in the seventh, and Javy Lopez's two-out double made it 3-2.

That was the sum of the offense. Leadoff man Rafael Furcal failed to reach base in four trips, and struck out twice. Sheffield had a single in four trips and his average stands at .207. Andruw Jones was 0-for-4, and is now 3-for-18 on the trip. Chipper Jones, the club's RBI leader, never reached the plate with a runner on base.

"I don't think it had anything to do with (Simontacchi)," Sheffield said. "We just haven't been able to do much lately."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.