Originally created 06/18/04

Bullpen collapses again for Atlanta



ATLANTA - It could be worse, but it's hard to imagine how. The Atlanta Braves are fading like a desert sunset and they seem powerless to stop the slide.

The Braves reached bottom Thursday afternoon by dropping the rubber game of a series to the American League's worst team, the Kansas City Royals, a 10-4 loss before a Turner Field crowd of 28,578 fans.

In their first trip here, the Royals battered Atlanta's pitching staff for 20 runs on 33 hits in winning the past two games of the series.

"There's some cause for concern," said left fielder Chipper Jones, whose 0-for-4 dropped his average to .206. "I don't ever remember our record being under .500 this late in a season. This is uncharted territory for all of us. The baseball gods have been on our side for a while. Maybe they're going to start evening things out."

The Braves are now three games below .500 (31-34) for the first time since May 22.

Following Wednesday night's formula, the Royals waited until the late innings to rough up starter John Thomson and a beleaguered bullpen, scoring five runs in the seventh and two more in the eighth on Carlos Beltran's 13th home run against reliever C.J. Nitkowski to turn a 3-1 game into a laugher.

"It's not embarrassing," said center fielder Andruw Jones, who went 0-for-5 with runners in scoring position the past two games. "They played better than us. It's been going on for a little bit now."

Thomson's return to the mound after a 33-minute rain delay in the sixth was a mistake. After giving up two runs in the first five innings, he allowed two hits and a run in the sixth, then got two outs in the seventh before unraveling. Reliever Kevin Gryboski didn't exactly throw him a lifeline. The Royals battered the 6-foot-5, 225-pound right-hander with three straight singles that turned into three runs.

"We had a good game going and let it get away," manager Bobby Cox said. "The bullpen made some bad pitches the last couple of days."

The spiraling Braves need some immediate help.

Their .254 batting average is the league's fourth-worst and their 295 runs is 10th. If the Braves are waiting for Marcus Giles and Adam LaRoche's return to upgrade the offense, they might be too late. By the time they return the Braves might be out of the National League East race.

"It's hard to win games when you give up 10 runs, but it's not just the pitchers," Jones said. "Our defense has not been good all year and our offense has been sporadic, at best. When you don't put any of those three elements together, you're going to get your brains beat in."

Reach Bill Zack at bzack30143@aol.com.