Bullpen woes lead to Braves' first-round exit
HOUSTON -- With their season on the line, the Atlanta Braves turned to a kid who was in college when the season started.
The Braves tried everything possible this season to fix a bullpen that has too often failed in October.
They never could.
Another postseason ended early for the Braves, ruined again by a bullpen that couldn't help Atlanta hold a five-run cushion.
The Braves took a 6-1 lead into the eighth inning behind Tim Hudson, who was working on only three days' rest, but ended up with a 7-6 loss in 18 innings and their fourth straight first-round exit.
"It was a great game today," closer Kyle Farnsworth said. "It was just a matter of whoever got the best break to win it in the end."
Farnsworth was acquired in July to be the closer the Braves had searched all season for after returning John Smoltz to the rotation. Farnsworth gave up two homers, including Brad Ausmus' tying drive in the ninth inning that left veteran Braves stunned.
"That was really the point in the game that you look in the dugout and say, `Somebody pinch me,"' Chipper Jones said. "It was hard to believe at that point."
Jones should not have been so surprised. Bad bullpen work is one of the biggest reasons Atlanta has just one World Series championship to show for its 14 straight division titles.
Atlanta tried to address that problem in recent years by making Smoltz its closer. But realizing his value as a starter, the Braves put him back in the rotation this year and watched as Dan Kolb and Chris Reitsma couldn't hold the job, forcing the acquisition of Farnsworth.
Farnsworth replaced Hudson in the eighth. After a fielder's choice, he walked pinch-hitter Luke Scott to load the bases and gave up a grand slam to Lance Berkman that made it 6-5. He got two outs in the ninth before allowing Ausmus' homer.
"You've got to give them credit," said Farnsworth, who appeared to be choked up as he spoke after the game. "They kept battling and battling. It's just one of those things that happens.
"I told Bobby (Cox) I could go two innings today and I felt fine. This is just a game of inches. That Ausmus home run barely cleared the line."
Reitsma -- who had allowed four runs in one-third of an inning in the first game and two runs while facing just two batters in Game 3 -- normal starter John Thomson and Jim Brower pitched eight shutout innings.
But the Braves then had to turn to Joey Devine, the rookie whose main claim to fame before this was that he was the first player in major league history to allow a grand slam in each of his first two career appearances.
Atlanta's first-round draft pick this year, Devine was called up late in the season as another possible solution to the bullpen woes. But he followed his arrival by allowing the homers on Aug. 20 against San Diego and Aug. 22 against Chicago.
Chris Burke sent Devine's 2-0 pitch into the left-field Crawford boxes for the game-winner -- and another early ending for the Braves.
"My first thought process was just keep it in the yard," Devine said. "Eighteen innings of baseball. That's unbelievable for two teams to go at it like that. It's the best game I've ever been a part of. I just want to keep learning and learning."
Nobody in the Braves' clubhouse was blaming Devine.
"It should have been over three or four hours before that," pitching coach Leo Mazzone said. "You're sitting there with a 6-1 lead after Hudson had done such a great job and you can't believe what's happening.
"Then Reitsma and Brower had to suck it up and they did. By the time we got to Devine, you figure it can't go on forever. You just keep going and going and going and now it's almost six hours. Somebody's bound to make a mistake."
Catcher Brian McCann agreed.
"(Devine) is going to be a great pitcher in this league someday," McCann said. "I can see why he was our No. 1 pick. He has a great sense of how to pitch.
"Pressure wasn't the problem. Everyone has pressure on them at this level. He threw really well. If we had it to do over, we'd do the same thing."
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press