ATLANTA - The Atlanta Braves are facing all sorts of problems in their quest to win a 14th straight division title.
The bullpen is a mess, largely because of deposed closer Dan Kolb. He's already lost four times and blown three save chances, prompting manager Bobby Cox to move the right-hander into middle relief - at least temporarily.
Then, on Thursday, the Braves announced pitcher John Thomson will miss up to three months because of an injured finger, depriving the team of one of its most effective starters.
Thomson won't need surgery, but it will be at least a month before he can begin rehabbing from a rare injury to his right middle finger. He has a partial tear to the area around the tendon flexor.
"The prognosis is he will miss two to three months," general manager John Schuerholz said. "Of course, that's devastating news."
Even with all the problems, Schuerholz is convinced the Braves are still on course to win another division championship. They lead the NL East by a half-game heading into a three-game series at Boston, which wraps up a 12-game, 14-day road trip - the longest of the season.
"I'm not concerned about our team at all," Schuerholz said Thursday, an off day for Atlanta. "We will right the ship, as we've always done. We're going through some tough times, not only because of the bullpen but some key injuries in other areas. That's what baseball is all about. You've got to manage your way through that."
The Braves thought they could manage the move of John Smoltz back to the starting rotation, even though he had 144 saves over the last three years.
Kolb was acquired from Milwaukee, coming off a breakthrough season in which he had 39 saves and made the All-Star team. But he's struggled for the Braves, finally forcing a change when he squandered another lead on Tuesday.
Cox wants Kolb to use his time in middle relief to work with pitching coach Leo Mazzone - without the burden to trying to protect ninth-inning leads.
"He needs to get his control a little bit better and a pitch or two better," Cox said. "He's got them, but he hasn't been throwing them."
Kolb's numbers are abysmal: In 16 2-3 innings, he's allowed 18 hits, given up 12 runs and walked 16. That last number is especially troubling, because Kolb already has surpassed the number of walks (15 in 57 1-3 innings) he had all of last season for the Brewers.
"He has to get his control back," Cox said. "He has a good slider and curveball. He just has to get the confidence in throwing them again."
But Kolb prefers to rely mainly on his fastball, moving it to different spots in the strike zone to keep hitters off balance. For some reason, he hasn't been able to keep it in the strike zone.
In Kolb's latest meltdown, he allowed three hits and two walks in the ninth as the Padres rallied from a 2-1 deficit for a 3-2 victory. It was the fourth straight loss for the Braves in which they led in the eighth or ninth innings.
Still, Kolb didn't feel that he pitched all that poorly.
"I made my pitches. I got three ground balls," he said. "It's frustrating, but there's not a whole lot I can do about that."
Of course, it didn't help that Kolb walked leadoff hitter Ryan Klesko.
"Leadoff walks don't bother me," Kolb insisted. "I'm a ground ball pitcher and I can get double plays. Now I just to have get them to hit ground balls at someone."
With Kolb banished to middle relief, there's no clear-cut choice to finish games. Cox plans to rely on a closer-by-committee approach.
Chris Reitsma got off to a good start, but he's 1-2 with a 4.26 ERA after a couple of poor outings. Kevin Gryboski (1.29 ERA) is on the disabled list with a viral infection. Adam Bernero is 3-0 but has a career record of 9-23. Jorge Sosa was 11-26 over the last three years in Tampa Bay as a part-time starter. John Foster started the season at Triple-A.
"We'll just play if by ear and see what happens," Cox said.
The rotation is better equipped to deal with the loss of Thomson. Smoltz (3-3, 2.83), Tim Hudson (4-2, 3.18) and Mike Hampton (4-1, 1.96 ERA) have been a dominating trio, and Horacio Ramirez is a promising left-hander with a 12-win season on his resume. Still, Thomson had been one of Atlanta's most effective pitchers since the middle of last season, going 11-3 with a 2.78 ERA in 24 starts.
The Braves haven't decided who will take his spot in the pecking order.