NEW YORK - When pitcher Albie Lopez, who had not gone to the mound as a starter since May 4, was taken deep by Roberto Alomar in the first inning Tuesday night, the Braves were reminded why Damian Moss has ousted last year's 19-game loser from the rotation.
Lopez, the $4 million journeyman pegged by the Braves as their fifth starter, morphed from villain to Shea Stadium favorite with a forgettable outing, a recurring theme in a career that now stands at 56 losses and 43 wins.
Lopez, pressed into duty when Greg Maddux was pushed back three days, was torched for five runs in the first three innings, the New York Mets' 7-4 win ending the Braves' win streak at six while closing the gap in the division race to 7 1/2 games.
"That's not the way I wanted to go out there," said Lopez, who fell to 1-4, while his ERA rose to 5.01. "I wanted to go out and put zeroes up on the board. It was just location. There were balls that I got up that got hit."
This was a long night in coming for the Mets, who had lost five straight to the Braves, and had fallen so far back in the NL East that manager Bobby Valentine's job was rumored to be in jeopardy. Fans in the crowd of 31,607 may one day recall that it was Lopez who saved Valentine's bacon, his yield of seven runs the worst performance by a Braves starter in 10 weeks.
"It's hard to spot start when you haven't started in two months," manager Bobby Cox said. "(Lopez) was OK at times."
One night after crafting a win on Keith Lockhart's unexpected power surge, the Braves, down seven runs after five innings, rallied to within three runs courtesy of Mets starter Steve Trachsel, who gave up Javy Lopez's home run in Atlanta's three-run sixth, and reliever David Weathers, who surrendered Lockhart's sacrifice fly in the seventh.
"We had thousands of chances," Cox said. "Big hits are hard to come by sometimes. We just got too far behind too quick."
The Braves stranded runners on first and second in the seventh, then loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth and failed to score. Chipper Jones, making a rare pinch hitting appearance after being scratched with back spasms, hit a soft fly to right, pinch hitter Julio Franco tapped back to closer Armando Benitez, the Mets' fifth reliever, and Javy Lopez went down swinging.
"I got a good pitch to hit and just flat-out missed it," Jones said. "I'll be seeing that pitch for a long time. I should have hit it into one of the gaps."
Lockhart walked to open the ninth, and Wes Helms followed with a single, but Rafael Furcal (pop up), Darren Bragg (strikeout) and Gary Sheffield (strikeout) went down in order to end the game.
"We can take a lot of good things out of this loss," Jones said. "We fought back and made a game of it. It shows the resolve of this team."
Albie Lopez, whose 7.11 ERA as a starter is no mirage, got off to a stumbling start when Alomar whistled a 2-and-1 mistake over the right field wall in the first, a drive estimated at 412 feet.
Roger Cedeno ignited a three-run rally with two out in the second with a single and stolen base. Rey Ordonez followed with an RBI single, then Sheffield lost Trachsel's line drive in the lights, the ball rolling to the right field wall for a triple, and Timo Perez almost beheaded Lopez with a line drive through the middle to make it 4-0.
Perez's single in the fifth, and a walk to Edgardo Alfonzo ended Lopez's night. Alomar drew a walk from reliever Kerry Ligtenberg, then Mike Piazza followed with a double to the right-center field gap, giving Lopez's numbers a final boost skyward.
Lopez's line: 4 innings, 8 hits, 2 walks, 7 earned runs.
Maybe starting isn't the 30-year-old righthander's gig. He's 9-23 in his last 37 starts dating back to the start of last season.
"I can't say I was tired," Lopez said, "but the location of my pitches was just bad that last inning."
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