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No World Series defense for Marlins

ATLANTA (AP) -- The Florida Marlins blamed the weather and the
schedule. Manager Jack McKeon said his starting pitchers haven't
delivered.

Florida's surprising 2003 season was followed by a dismal
defense of its second World Series title, and the Marlins were
eliminated from postseason contention Sunday with a 6-3 loss to the
Atlanta Braves.

"Yeah, I'm disappointed, certainly," McKeon said. "You go
back to the starting pitching, what have we got in results the last
two weeks? From the starters, not too good. We haven't gotten many
wins out of them."

Including a spot start by David Weathers, Florida starters have
only three wins in their last 16 games. With Florida already
resigned to its fate, the Marlins joked in the clubhouse as rookies
were hazed after the loss.

Logan Kensing and Chris Aguila tried to fit into orange bikini
cheerleaders outfits for the flight to Montreal, drawing an
occasional whistle and giggle from veterans, who otherwise showed
little emotion after their sixth straight loss.

Last year, the Marlins won the NL wild card at 91-71 and went on
to upset the New York Yankees in the World Series. Sunday's loss
dropped Florida to 79-76 with seven games to go -- not enough to
catch the wild-card leading Chicago Cubs (87-68).

Still, the season was more entertaining than the last defense,
when Florida slumped to a 54-108 record in 1998 after a salary
purge dismantled the 1997 champions. No NL team has won
back-to-back World Series since the 1975-76 Cincinnati Reds.

"In this game you've got to improve each year," McKeon said.
"The only guy who really stepped up is Pavano."

Carl Pavano is eligible to become a free agent during the
offseason and is likely to be pursued by big-money contenders.

Dontelle Willis dropped to 10-11 after going 14-6 last year and
winning the NL Rookie of the Year award. He has won one of seven
starts since Aug. 14, and his ERA jumped from 3.30 last season to
4.01 this year.

"Hey, the potential is there," McKeon said of his starting
pitchers. "The record book is full of guys with potential. You've
got to do it on the field. Potential gets you fired real quick."

The Marlins fell out of postseason contention by going 11-14 in
September. They were 18-8 in September last year.

"It's tough, because we're right there," Willis said. "I feel
like every game we're one or two plays away. The same thing
happened today. The base hit that Chipper (Jones) had kind of
opened the game up."

Florida had to play three doubleheaders in September, including
two with the Cubs due to games postponed by Hurricane Frances.
Since Sept. 7, the Marlins have played 23 games in 20 days, going
9-14.

"It's not an excuse, it just makes it tougher," reliever Rudy
Seanez said. "Your pitchers get tired and your infielders get
tired."

Even Braves manager Bobby Cox took note of the unusual
late-season schedule, which includes 10 straight games on the road
to finish the year. Atlanta swept the Marlins for the second time
this season and went 14-5 against them.

"They had a tough go with the hurricane and the
doubleheaders," Cox said. "It takes a toll on you."

Jones drove in two runs for Atlanta, raising his total to 95
with six games remaining. Jones, trying to join Sammy Sosa as the
only NL players with nine straight 100-RBI seasons, had just 34 at
the All-Star break after playing hurt for much of the first half.

Braves starter John Thomson (14-8) allowed one and four hits and
one run in seven innings.

Miguel Cabrera's RBI single put Florida ahead in the first
before Willis gave up five runs in the third. Charles Thomas hit an
RBI single before Jones, who had been 1-for-16 with the bases
loaded, hit a two-run single. Julio Franco, who was 3-for-4,
followed with a two-run double for a 5-1 lead.

Willis walked three in the inning, including Eli Marrero ahead
of Jones.

"Chipper was the one guy we didn't want to see coming up,"
McKeon said. "I could live with Marrero getting a hit. Chipper is
a money player."

Eddie Perez hit an RBI double in the sixth. Florida scored late
on Jeff Conine's RBI double in the eighth off Horacio Ramirez and
Juan Pierre's run-scoring single in the ninth against Ramon Colon.

Game notes
Ramirez, recovering from tendinitis in his left shoulder,
made his first appearance since May 25. ... Pierre stole his 44th
base in the first inning. With two hits, he extended his team
record to 207. ... Willis gave up as many as six runs for only the
second time in 16 starts.