Braves trying to avoid a 'funny mark'

The look on Braves manager Bobby Cox's face was unmistakable. After another reliever (Jorge Sosa) had blown another save, resulting in another crushing defeat, Cox sat motionless on the bench at Yankee Stadium as Alex Rodriguez's walk-off home run beat the Braves 4-3. The look on Cox's face wasn't of anger or disappointment, but more of incredulity, and perhaps a look of resignation that the remarkable run of titles for Atlanta may be over.

Cox isn't giving up; neither are any of the Braves. And we have learned over the years never to discount them. They have been in predicaments before -- they were 10 games out in July 1993, and won the division -- but this year is different, this year almost certainly will bring an end to their unprecedented streak of 14 division titles. Without a Fred McGriff acquisition in 1993 to save them, this year might also mean a summer without a pennant race in Atlanta for the first time since 1990. Braves GM John Schuerholz, when asked Saturday if that possibility has crossed his mind, said, "It has. The reality is, we're 13½ games behind, and every club in our division is ahead of us.''

It is inconceivable that the Braves could enter July with a worse record than the Marlins, who sold off their team last winter to get down to a $15 million payroll, and the Nationals, who have been run by Major League Baseball for the last five years. Executives, opposing players and scouts across the game are stunned by the fall of the Braves.

"They played as poorly in June [6-21 record] as I've ever seen them play,'' one National League GM said. "I looked at them and couldn't believe they were the Braves.''

The Braves have not won three games in a row since May 26-28. One scout, who has seen them play a significant number of games this year, said, "Their pitching isn't very good right now. They've had a lot of injuries to their pitching [Kyle Davies and others]. Some of their young hitters are being pitched to a little differently this year compared to last, and they haven't adjusted as well as they should. Their bullpen has been a mess from the first day [of the season].''

The Braves have a 4.63 ERA, which ranks 18th in the major leagues, and a bullpen ERA of 4.74 (24th). They began the season with Chris Reitsma as their closer, that didn't go well, and then he got hurt. They turned to Ken Ray, who hadn't pitched in the major leagues since 1999. They also have used Sosa, who failed as a starter (1-9). The Braves knew they had bullpen issues entering the season, but even in their streak of division championships, they always found someone to finish a game. They haven't found that pitcher this year.

"The bullpen implosion impacted so completely on the rest of our team, it weighed so heavily on our starting pitching, and our offense, we knew we would have to score five, six, seven runs to win a game,'' Schuerholz said. "It just took so much energy from our team. And there's only so much energy on a team.''

Schuerholz always has been the master of finding what he needs through a trade before the July 31 deadline. But even he admits: "Knowing our daunting circumstances, what we need is just not available right now. Other clubs are in trouble as well. They're looking for the same thing. Bullpen problems are very common in our game. Almost every team has them.''

Schuerholz clearly has the mind-set of a buyer, not a seller, as the trade deadline approaches. He has no interest in trading off his best, most experienced players, and abandoning a season that is just barely halfway over. That includes ace John Smoltz, who recently acknowledged, when asked, that he would entertain the thought of being traded if the deal could make the Braves better.

"John doesn't want to leave the Braves, I know that, I just negotiated a contract with him last winter,'' Schuerholz said. "That's not on our radar screen. That is not a possibility for us.''

June is mercifully over, July is here, and the Braves are still in last place in the NL East. They finally did win a series at home for the first time in over a month (winning two of three from the Orioles last weekend), and the NL is as weak as it has been in many years. Rookie left-hander Chuck James has won his first two starts since being recalled from Triple-A Richmond. Maybe, say the Braves, it's slowly starting to turn. But making the playoffs seems like a long shot.

"We're going to do everything we can to win enough games to make the playoffs,'' Schuerholz said. "With the unlikely possibility that we win our division, more likely, we will battle for the wild card. And if that doesn't work, and they put one of those funny marks next to your team's name in the standings, meaning that you can't win this year, then we'll do everything we can to get better for 2007.''

The Braves haven't had a funny mark next to their name since 1990. If it does happen, it's not going to be funny in Atlanta.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.