Reds fall to season-worst 16 games under .500

CINCINNATI (AP) -- Julio Franco couldn't remember the last time he hit two homers in a game. He needed some details to fill in the memory blanks.

The year was 1996. He was playing for Cleveland. The opponent was the California Angels -- yes, they belonged to the entire state back then, not just two cities.

"It's too far [back] for me," said Franco, who homered twice Saturday in the Atlanta Braves' 6-1 victory over the Cincinnati Reds. "Tell
me what happened yesterday."

At age 46, his memory is a little worn. On some days, though, the legs and the swing are as fresh as a rookie's.

The age-defying first baseman hit a solo homer and a two-run shot Saturday off Eric Milton (3-9), starting another outburst by the Braves. Andruw Jones took the NL lead with his 19th homer, his seventh in the last eight days.

Johnny Estrada then sealed it with a two-run shot in the eighth off Kent Mercker, Atlanta's ninth homer in the last two games. But it was Franco's throwback performance that made everyone marvel.

"When you're with him every day, you think it's never going to end," manager Bobby Cox said. "Sometimes I'm amazed that he can do what he's doing at that age."

It was amazing that he stayed on the field long enough to hit two. Franco had a virus when the Braves arrived in town and his temperature spiked again on Friday, leaving him tired and weak.

"I'm losing weight," Franco said. "I can't eat well. I can't sleep well."

It sure didn't show.

"After the first home run, or maybe it was the second, I was thinking that he's kind of like a position player you could compare to Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson," said Reds manager Dave Miley, who is three years younger than Franco. "I don't know if remarkable's the right word, but he's impressive."

The Braves have done an impressive about-face in Cincinnati, winning the first three games with three starting pitchers on the disabled list. Atlanta hadn't won three in a row since a sweep of the Mets from May 23-25.

For the Reds, it was another gloomy night in front of their first sellout crowd since Opening Day. Cincinnati has lost six in a row, falling a season-worst 16 games under .500. Since their chief executive delivered a win-or-else ultimatum, the Reds have gone

Reliever Adam Bernero (4-1) blanked the Reds for 1 2/3 innings, getting the victory as the Braves' cobbled staff repeatedly dodged trouble. Cincinnati stranded 13 runners, nine in scoring position.

Reliever Jorge Sosa made his second start of the season -- this one on only three days of rest -- and limited the Reds to Sean Casey's RBI single in 4 1/3 innings. Sosa is filling in while the Braves wait for John Thomson, Mike Hampton and Tim Hudson to
recover from injuries.

Milton was supposed to be the cornerstone of a revamped Reds rotation, signing on for three years at $25.5 million last December. Instead, the left-hander leads the league in losses, hits, runs and homers allowed with 25. Last year, he gave up 43 homers, most in the NL.

"I made some mistakes," Milton said. "The outcomes haven't been good, but I try to take some positives out of them. It's tough. It's been a struggle and it continues."

Franco got the Braves rolling with a two-out solo shot in the first. His two-run homer made it 3-0 in the third and gave him his first multihomer game since Sept. 12, 1996, for Cleveland.

Since then, his hardscrabble career has taken him to Milwaukee, Japan, Mexico, Tampa Bay, Korea, Mexico again and finally Atlanta, where he's showing he's still got something left in that well-traveled body.

During the series opener, Franco stole a pair of bases for the first time since 1994. Franco, who turns 47 on Aug. 23, is the oldest major-leaguer to steal a base.

He's the second-oldest to homer. Jack Quinn was a week shy of his 47th birthday when he homered for the Philadelphia Athletics on June 27, 1930.

Jones, who had two homers in Friday's 10-5 win, made it 4-1 with his 418-foot drive to center in the fifth inning. He's 8-for-21 career off Milton with four homers.

Game notes
Franco has five multihomer games in his career. ... Sosa also had his first career hit, a single. ... The Reds had a business promotion and a cap giveaway, accounting for the crowd of
41,737. ... Milton has given up at least one homer in 13 of his 15 starts. He's 1-8 since April 21 with an 8.58 ERA. ... The Reds have given up 103 homers, most in the majors. ... Reds catcher Jason LaRue left in the eighth after twisting his right knee while rounding first base on a single.