ATLANTA - It has been the biggest puzzler of the season, why Atlanta pitcher Mike Hampton can't win as consistently as he did during the final two months last year.
Hampton failed to record an out in the fourth inning and the Montreal Expos took advantage of his wildness and four more Braves' errors to salvage the series finale, 8-4 on Wednesday, before a crowd of 21,055 fans.
Fresh off a remarkable ninth-inning comeback, the Braves managed only four hits against Expos winner Claudio Vargas and returned to .500 (26-26) while wasting an opportunity to gain ground on the first-place Florida Marlins.
The Braves, charged with three errors in Tuesday night's win, committed four more miscues - two by rookie second baseman Nick Green - inside four innings to assume the National League lead with 47.
Atlanta's defense is on pace for 146 errors, which would be its most since 1990 when it committed 158 errors.
Bad defense or not, Hampton was not sharp, allowing six runs - four earned - on seven hits and a season-high five walks. The vaunted sinker that made him a 14-game winner last year has been seen sporadically this season. The 31-year-old left-hander, who had given up only three earned runs in his last three starts, fell to 1-6.
Hampton dodged trouble in the first by inducing Nick Johnson to hit a harmless fly to left, stranding runners on first and third, then loaded the bases with two out the next inning. He escaped again by coaxing an infield roller from Jose Vidro, then in rapid succession the Expos went single, double, walk, single, strikeout, single to score three runs in the third.
The Expos showed some intentions of making the game a laugher in the fourth when they scored three more times, aided in good measure by Hampton and Green. Green let a double-play grounder go through his legs, then Hampton issued back-to-back walks, the final free pass to Johnson forcing in a run.
Hampton was gone after failing to retire an Expo in the fourth. He has now made six starts this season in which he has allowed four or more earned runs. The Braves scored a run against Vargas in the first, when J.D. Drew lined a soft single with two out and Johnny Estrada followed with a double to the wall in right.
Reach Bill Zack at email@example.com.
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