Strikeouts damage Braves' playoff shot
Baserunning mistake ends chance for comeback in ninth
ATLANTA -- Already staring at the slightest margin for error, the Braves likely saw their postseason hopes erased by a pair of mistakes, one of which will continue to haunt Matt Diaz when he enters an offseason that will seemingly arrive earlier than he and his teammates had hoped.
In response to the successful two-week stretch that had put them back in legitimate postseason contention, the Braves began using a new one-word slogan this week: "Believe."
It was hard to believe that Atlanta had managed to win 15 of 17 games before seeing its seven-game winning streak snapped Tuesday night. Unfortunately for Diaz, it was harder to believe the final event that likely placed the playoff hopes to rest for the last time.
Showing the same resiliency that had been on display most of this month, the Braves plated a pair of ninth-inning runs at Turner Field on Wednesday night. They had the bases loaded when Diaz got picked off third base after a pitch in the dirt that initially invited him to move toward the plate with what would have been the tying run. That concluded the 5-4 loss to the Marlins.
"I've never felt this bad about a play," Diaz said. "I've made some plays in my day, but not this late in the year and that costly."
Diaz's inability to get back to third base in front of the throw by Marlins catcher Ronny Paulino denied the Braves the opportunity to complete a comeback victory that would have at least allowed them to keep their playoff hopes alive for one more day. They now stand four games behind the Rockies in the National League Wild Card race with just four games to play.
"I haven't seen too many end like that, and Matty is the best baserunner that we've got on the team," manager Bobby Cox said. "Nobody feels worse than he does about it."
After being dominated by the 16-strikeout performance that Ricky Nolasco produced over 7 2/3 innings, Atlanta nearly erased the three-run deficit it faced heading into the ninth. Yunel Escobar and Omar Infante produced RBI singles around a Wes Helms two-out throwing error that allowed Diaz to reach safely.
Brendan Donnelly entered after Nate McLouth drew a walk to load the bases, and he threw his first pitch to Martin Prado in the dirt and away from Paulino, who initially turned in the wrong direction. After making a move toward the plate, the Braves outfielder was unsuccessful in his attempt to retreat to third base in time.
"I got a good jump, but then I realized it wasn't far away at all from the catcher," Diaz said. "Once I realized that, I probably should have gone right back to third."
As they near the completion of this season, the Braves are going to contemplate a lot of what-ifs. Although Diaz's mistake proved to be the capper, the Marlins might not have possessed the three-run ninth-inning lead had Chipper Jones not allowed Cameron Maybin's grounder to race under his glove during what developed into a three-run third inning against Javier Vazquez.
"That one is on me," Jones said. "The ball skipped, and I just whiffed on it."
With his 22nd error of the season, Jones provided Florida the chance to score a pair of unearned runs in third, which was highlighted by RBI singles delivered by Jorge Cantu and Dan Uggla. The third run of the inning scored via a wild pitch delivered by Vazquez, who allowed five runs -- three earned -- and eight hits in six innings.
Vazquez also allowed a two-run fifth-inning homer to his nemesis Ross Gload, who has hit .457 in 35 career at-bats against the Braves right-hander.
"Errors are part of the game," said Vazquez, who was 4-0 with a 0.84 ERA in his previous four starts. "I tried my best not to let them score in that inning, and they did. That lineup has given me trouble this year. They've got a good lineup, and they seem to hit me pretty well. It's just a tough loss, and what can I say about Gload? He's killing me right now."
Vazquez has been simply sensational over the course of the past month against everybody other than the Marlins, who accounted for 15 of the 18 runs that he has allowed over the course of his past 54 innings.
While Vazquez produced nine strikeouts, Nolasco set another franchise record by striking out nine consecutive batters during the third through fifth innings. The 26-year-old right-hander faced the minimum through the first five innings and didn't allow his second hit until surrendering a sixth-inning leadoff double to Adam LaRoche, who also accounted for all the damage Nolasco incurred with a two-run seventh-inning single.
"I just had something to prove against these guys," Nolasco said. "As a team, they've hit me pretty well. I've had a couple of wins here and there against them, but as a whole, that lineup, they've been pretty comfortable against me."
Atlanta ended the game with 16 strikeouts, the most it has registered in a nine-inning game since May 22, 2006, when Jake Peavy victimized them with that identical total over the course of just seven innings. Ryan Langerhans' two-run second-inning homer enabled John Smoltz to win that pitchers' duel.
Unfortunately for Diaz and Jones, good fortune wasn't on the Braves' side on Wednesday evening, when they found their postseason pulse reduced to a murmur.
"Errors are part of the game, and so is baserunning," Cox said.
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.