ATLANTA (AP) -- For much of the season, John Smoltz was the one who kept Atlanta from falling into a long losing streak.
Now, with the Braves trying to make a desperate run for the wild card, their best pitcher can't seem to win.Bothered by a sore groin, Smoltz gave up three-run homers to Jacque Jones and Derrek Lee in his second-shortest start of the season as the Braves failed to finish off a sweep of the Chicago Cubs, losing 8-3 on Monday night.Lee homered twice, adding a solo shot off Ken Ray that carried the Cubs to only their fourth win in 22 games.Smoltz (12-9) failed to get an out in the third and was lifted by manager Bobby Cox after Lee's first homer gave the Cubs a 6-0 lead."He tweaked [the groin] a little bit and got some balls up," Cox said. "Obviously, it bothered him. He didn't have good location. He's had this before and it usually goes away. Tonight, it didn't."The loss was Smoltz's third in a row, dealing a severe blow to Atlanta's playoff hopes. The Braves are 5½ games behind NL wild-card leader San Diego, with five other teams also ahead of them.One solace for the Braves: The first-place New York Mets were
routed 16-5 by Florida, which prevented Atlanta from being eliminated from the NL East race to break its streak of 14 straight division titles.Often this season, the 39-year-old Smoltz was the go-to pitcher when the Braves needed a victory. Beginning at the start of June, he won eight of nine decisions -- all but two of the wins coming after losses.But he's lost his last three starts, each of them to halt winning streaks. The Braves took the first three games of the series against hapless Chicago."I was excited to pitch tonight, especially with the three-game winning streak," Smoltz said. "I thought I made a good pitch to Jones and he hit it out. That leaves a bad taste in your mouth."Jones homered in the first, when it appeared Smoltz might escape a jam. After Juan Pierre and Freddie Bynum started the game with back-to-back singles, Aramis Ramirez flied out and Lee struck out.But Jones drove an 0-1 pitch into the left-field stands for his 24th homer. Smoltz stared in that direction with a look of disbelief after the ball cleared the wall.In the third, Bynum led off with a walk and Smoltz called the trainer to the mound, flexing as though he felt pain in his groin. He stayed in the game after throwing a couple warmup pitches, which proved to be a mistake.Smoltz walked the next hitter as well and then gave up Lee's eighth homer of the season to give the Cubs a 6-0 lead. That was it for the Atlanta starter, who lost to Chicago for the first time since April 6, 1993."I was fine until I tweaked it in the third," said Smoltz, who is 15-5 in his career against the Cubs but hasn't beaten them since April 5, 1997. "Hopefully, it will not be that big a deal."Lee, playing just his 47th game in an injury-plagued season, also homered in the fifth on the first pitch from Ray, one of eight guys who took the mound for Atlanta. The Cubs slugger struck out in his other three at-bats."We pitched him good three times," Cox quipped.Said Lee: "I'll take it. I would do more if I didn't strike out so much. I need to work on that."Smoltz lasted 1 2/3 innings in his shortest start of the season, leaving a June 23 game at Tampa Bay because of a strained right groin. He was able to make his next start, going seven innings against the New York Yankees.Atlanta lost to Chicago for the first time all season. The Cubs' last win at Turner Field went back even further, to April 11, 2004. The had lost seven straight at the Ted and 12 of 13 to the Braves overall.Rich Hill (5-6) won for the fifth time in seven decisions since being recalled from the minors in late July. He went 5 2/3 innings, giving up six hits and one earned run while striking out six.The Braves scored an unearned run in the fourth on Martin Prado's run-scoring single after Ramirez, leading NL third basemen in fielding percentage, bobbled a grounder for his second error of the game.Hill allowed another RBI single in the sixth to pinch-hitter Brayan Pena, the final hitter faced by the Chicago starter. The lefty threw 120 pitches."We swung the bat as well as we have in a long time," Hill said. "I felt good. I located my fastball."
Lee had the 18th two-homer game of his career and first since Aug. 28, 2005, vs. Florida. ... The crowd of 19,444 was the third-smallest of the season in Atlanta.