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Prior can't stop Cubs' skid

ATLANTA (AP) -- Horacio Ramirez wanted to prove his previous poor
outing was an exception.

"Today I had a good fastball," he said. "I threw it. I didn't
guide it. I threw it with conviction."

Ramirez pitched his first career shutout, and the Atlanta Braves
chased Mark Prior in the fifth inning of a 6-0 victory Thursday
that sent the Cubs to their seventh straight loss in the opener of
a day-night doubleheader.

It is the second time this season the Cubs have lost seven
consecutive games. This run matches their longest skid since
dropping nine straight from May 8-18, 2002.

Ramirez went 3-4 with a 5.65 ERA in nine starts during the first
two months of the season, but he recovered to go 4-0 with a 3.55
ERA in six June starts. He lasted just 4 2/3 innings in his previous
outing, a 6-3 loss at Philadelphia last Saturday.

Ramirez (8-5) tossed his third career complete game and first
since May 20, 2004, against Arizona. The left-hander allowed just
three singles and one walk.

"This is when he's at his best, when he's getting quick outs,"
Braves catcher Johnny Estrada said. "When they know he's going to
be around the plate, they will be aggressive."

Julio Franco hit a three-run homer in the five-run fifth for the
Braves, who won for the 15th time in 20 games. Rafael Furcal had a
run-scoring double, and Andruw Jones hit an RBI single before the
46-year-old Franco's seventh homer of the season.

"You want to score a lot of runs when you're facing Prior,"
Franco said. "If he gets two or three runs, it's hard to beat
him."

Prior (5-3) gave up seven hits, six runs, four walks and struck
out five before being replaced by Sergio Mitre with two outs in the
fifth. Chicago starters have a 6.75 ERA in the Cubs' 43 losses this
season.

"They did some things with some good pitches and just kind of
waited for a big break, which they got," Prior said. "I had a
tough time throwing my curveball for strikes. In fact, I didn't
have a curveball at all, so I think going out there throwing pretty
much two pitches, it's tough against this lineup."

The Braves were to send John Smoltz to the mound Thursday night
against Jerome Williams. The teams were forced to play a
doubleheader after rain washed out Wednesday's game.

Todd Walker, starting at first base in place of injured Cubs
All-Star Derrek Lee, singled in the second and walked in the
fourth. Jeromy Burnitz singled in the seventh and Michael Barrett
in the eighth for the only baserunners Ramirez allowed.

The Braves outscored the Cubs 15-1 in the first three games of
the four-game series.

"We've played three games here, and we've got one run,"
Chicago manager Dusty Baker said. "That makes it tough. This is a
tough period we're going through right now. It hurts not to have D.
Lee in there, especially against a left-hander. We've got to change
something."

Ramirez improved to 1-1 in three starts against the Cubs after
entering with a 5.91 ERA when facing Chicago.

"I was throwing more first-pitch strikes than usual," Ramirez
said. "If I got behind in the count, I could throw a two-seamer.
I'd been throwing cutters that didn't cut. I was able to minimize
those today."

Prior, facing the Braves for the third time and first since
2003, dropped to 0-3 with a career ERA of 7.88 in 15 innings
against Atlanta.

Baker said the Cubs wouldn't have Lee for the second game,
either, but Prior refused to blame the hitters for the team's
struggles.

"It's not our job to worry about the offense," Prior said.
"Our job's to go out and worry about their offense. It's all I do,
and obviously I didn't have a good game today. I don't know how
much else to put it."

After returning June 26 from a non-displaced fracture in his
right elbow, Prior pitched six shutout innings to beat the White
Sox 2-0, but he has lost two straight starts.

Ryan Langerhans gave the Braves a 1-0 lead with a sacrifice fly
in the second.

Game notes
The Cubs also lost seven straight from April 30-May 7. ...
Atlanta manager Bobby Cox changed course and said rookie Jeff
Francoeur would start the second game in right field. Cox stated
Wednesday night that Francoeur, whose contract was purchased from
Double-A Mississippi, wouldn't debut until Friday. ... Braves
starters Tim Hudson and Mike Hampton said they will pitch another
simulated game Saturday instead of making a rehab start in Class A.
... The Cubs are 13-21 at Turner Field.