LOS ANGELES - Atlanta Braves fans might tell themselves it's just a three-game losing streak, something the Braves haven't had since they dropped three straight just after the All-Star break.
But they look at the offense - the maddening enigma that is Vinny Castilla, and the equally unproductive Javy Lopez - and they experience a sinking sensation in the pits of their stomachs.
There's October to think about as they contemplate the Braves' 12-9 record this month, and considering what the Braves have awaiting them during the next week on the road, Saturday afternoon's 4-3 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers before a packed house at Dodger Stadium was as disheartening as any loss this season.
"This one stings a little bit," said Braves left fielder Chipper Jones, who fell a triple shy of hitting for the cycle but knocked in just one run. "We had a lot of breaks when we went through that stretch in the middle of the season, and now they're starting to catch up with us."
The Braves, who were 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position, loaded the bases twice and scored just one run. They stranded 12 runners, six in scoring position.
"It's frustrating," said Castilla, whose third-inning error was followed by Shawn Green's second two-run home run in two days. "I make the error that cost us two runs, and then I end the game with a ground ball. Things can't get any worse."
In the ninth, right fielder Gary Sheffield drew a walk from closer Eric Gagne. Jones then took a third strike, and Darren Bragg rolled to second, but shortstop Cesar Izturis dropped a possible game-ending double play relay, momentarily silencing the crowd of 54,212 fans.
The error didn't faze Gagne. He wrapped up his 44th save, matching the Dodgers' all-time single-season record, by inducing Castilla to roll into a double play.
"A guy with a handful of errors this season makes one, and then we lose a ball in the sun," Jones said, referring to Sheffield, who missed Izturis' fly in the seventh, triggering a two-run Dodgers' rally. "In all honesty, we probably should have won 3-0 today."
The Braves had stressed the importance of taking an early lead. Instead, for the fourth time in five games on this trip, their opponents seized a 2-0 lead, this time against Braves ace Tom Glavine, who was making a second bid for his 17th win.
At this rate, Green will run out of batting gloves before the Dodgers run out of baseballs. Green, who sheds his gloves and tosses them to people in the crowd after his home runs, gave away two more souvenirs with a two-run home run in the third. His 38th home run came after Castilla booted Marquis Grissom's ground ball with two outs, another defensive lapse that cost the Braves dearly.
"(Green) is one of those rare hitters who can hurt you with power who don't swing at a lot of bad pitches," said Glavine, who gave up just two earned runs in seven innings, but fell to 16-7. "Just hope that when you do make a mistake he lets you get away with it, but he's not doing it right now."
The way the second half has gone for Castilla, he might want to consider another line of work. He came to the plate in the first inning after Dodgers starter Andy Ashby walked Sheffield and Bragg to load the bases with two outs, swung at the first pitch, and rolled weakly to Izturis.
Castilla, whose homerless streak stands at 205 at-bats, passed on another opportunity to drive in a run in the fifth. Matt Franco sent a one-out single to right, sped to second on a wild pitch, then scored on Sheffield's single. Jones followed with a third straight hit, but Castilla, batting .205 since the break, tapped out with runners on first and second.
"I've struggled before," said Castilla, who left six runners on base. "It seems every time I hit the ball it's right at people. I've just got to keep on swinging."
Trailing 2-1 in the sixth, the Braves loaded the bases with no outs, but came away with just one run. Lopez drew a third straight walk, Keith Lockhart roped a single to right, and Glavine reached base with a textbook bunt.
Again, the Braves were impatient hitters. Leadoff man Rafael Furcal swung at Ashby's first pitch and popped up, then Franco sent home the game-tying run with a sacrifice fly to right. Sheffield, who walked twice and singled in his first three trips, ended the rally with an infield out.
Ashby gave way to venerable Jesse Orosco in the seventh, and Jones greeted him with his 20th home run of the season, rifling the 44-year-old lefthander's 1-and-0 mistake into the Dodgers bullpen in left.
That set the stage for Sheffield's misadventure in right, Izturis' routine fly morphing into a double in the home half of the seventh.
"I realized I was in trouble when I knew it should be coming down, and I couldn't see it," Sheffield said. "It never came out of the sun."
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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