Braves waste opportunities, drop another series

CINCINNATI -- If the Braves were hitting at close to a decent rate with runners in scoring position, shortstop Alex Gonzalez's fifth-inning error Sunday might not have been critical.

But they aren't, and it was.

The two-out error let in the decisive run in Cincinnati's 2-1 win to complete a 3-6 trip for the Braves, whose lead over Philadelphia in the National League East eroded from seven to 2 1/2 games during the trip.

Tommy Hanson pitched 7 1/3 strong innings, and Gonzalez hit his first home run as a Brave. But the Braves mustered only four hits and went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position, a problem throughout the trip.

"Our guys are doing a good job of getting on, working the strike zone and all that," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "But we need to pick it up a little bit with our hitting."

The Braves hit .204 and totaled 15 runs in the past six games and have been even worse when the stakes were highest. They went 15-for-84 (.179) with runners in scoring position during the trip and lost two of three in each series -- at Florida, Washington and Cincinnati.

"We've got to do a better job with that," said Braves veteran Eric Hinske, who went hitless in four at-bats Sunday, each time with a runner in scoring position. "All you can do is keep swinging."

They return for a seven-game homestand starting Monday against the reeling New York Mets. The fourth-place Mets have lost 15 of 21, but still are only 6 1/2 games behind the Braves.

The Braves have lost 10 of 17 since a 39-17 tear had seemingly put them in control of the division race. So much for that notion. After losing one series in 21 from May 10 through July 22, they have dropped three series in a row for the first time since late April.

All six losses on the trip were by three runs or fewer, three by one run.

"If you look back on the trip, I think [Saturday's 5-2 defeat] was our biggest loss," said Jason Heyward, who had a two-out double in the ninth inning Sunday, but was stranded there when Omar Infante grounded out to end the game.

"We lost another three-run game in Washington," Heyward said, "but other than that, there were some one-run games we played real close. We had an opportunity [Saturday] to extend that lead while we had them 2-nothing, but we just didn't come through there."

Crowds totaled 122,855 in Cincinnati, the largest three-day attendance ever at Great American Ballpark. The Reds are a half-game behind NL Central-leader St. Louis.

"It was fun to play here," Cox said. "They were all great ballgames. We were in all three. Could have won all three, could have lost all three."

After a 6-4 win in Friday's series opener against the Reds, the Braves totaled three runs the past two days, going 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position. They left two men on base in the first, third, fifth and seventh innings Sunday.

Their only run was Gonzalez's leadoff homer in the second inning, his 18th this season and first since being traded to the Braves by Toronto on July 14.

Gonzalez wasn't able to enjoy it for long. Orlando Cabrera's two-out grounder bounced off the palm of Gonzalez's glove in the fifth inning, allowing Brandon Phillips to score for a 2-1 lead.

A few minutes earlier, Phillips drove in the first run with a hit that went for a triple when Heyward tried to make a diving catch near the right-field line. It was a daring attempt with a runner at first.

"You've got to lay out," Heyward said. "You can't leave any question. That's the only way I'll know if I could catch it, is if I dive. I don't want to be standing up there with two outs. I want to lay out for my team and the pitcher."

The bright spot was Hanson, who allowed one earned run and five hits in 7 1/3 innings. He has allowed nine earned runs in 37 innings over his past five starts (2.19 ERA), after allowing 14 earned runs in 7 1/3 innings in his last two June starts.

"I felt like I went out there and did my best, gave us a chance to win," he said. "It just didn't work today. They're a really good team. They swing the bats well, and they pitched well today. Just one of those days, there's not much you can do about it. We just have to keep our heads up and keep moving forward."