The Dodgers can still win the division this year, but it will take the greatest comeback in Los Angeles history to do it. Since moving from Brooklyn, they have never trailed by this many games in April and finished first.
Chad Billingsley, who lost only five games all last season, fell to 0-3 on Saturday -- even though he had tied his career-high nine strikeouts after only 4 1/3 innings. But he was about to lose his command, and the game, in what became a 35-pitch, four-run fifth inning that included three walks.
Three walks in the fifth inning -- and five for the game -- was the same recipe for disaster for Derek Lowe the night before. Meanwhile, the Braves used the same starting pitching strategy in both games by employing a Triple-A callup. The Dodgers answered with one run in each game and went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, though they had baserunners in every inning on Saturday.
"Everybody feels the urgency of getting the offense to where it should be," said manager Joe Torre.
On Saturday, Atlanta started Chuck James and his 18.00 ERA instead of future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine, but you couldn't tell the difference by the way the Dodgers swung their bats.
Here are some indicative big-picture stats: The Dodgers are 2-7 when they score three runs or fewer, and 0-8 when they allow four or more. Simply put, neither the pitching nor the offense is dominant enough to win games alone. They need to play all phases of the game well every day to win. And they aren't doing it.
"We've put, in a lot of games, pressure on our pitchers because we haven't scored runs on a regular basis," said Torre, who said Billingsley was "the best I've seen him all year" until he unraveled in the fifth, when "the walks came back to haunt him."
The inning began harmlessly enough, with pinch-hitter Brayan Pena becoming Billingsley's ninth strikeout victim out of 18 batters.
"For four innings, it was lights-out," said Gary Bennett, who started at catcher in place of slumping Russell Martin. "Then Chad started to jump at me. He got out of whack and was fighting himself."
Shadows that should have made Billingsley's 95-mph fastball invisible began creeping across Turner Field, but the next five Braves reached base anyway. That included a walk to Chipper Jones to load the bases.
"I just didn't want Chipper Jones to beat me," said Billingsley, having watched the Braves' franchise star homer twice Friday night. "I wanted to face Mark [Teixeira] and I made a perfect pitch and he went the other way and there was nothing I could do about it."
Teixeira's two-run single gave the Braves the lead. Billingsley walked Brian McCann to load the bases, then Jeff Francoeur smoked a one-hopper that banged off the chest of third baseman Nomar Garciaparra, turning a possible inning-ending double play into an RBI groundout.
"I haven't seen Nomar play a lot of third base," Torre said, diplomatically sidestepping questions about the veteran's readiness to return after a three-game rehab assignment (two games in the field) after a month off with a broken hand. Blake DeWitt provided little power filling in, but was surprisingly sure-handed defensively.
"I'm not really sure that's the issue," Torre said of the brief rehab assignment for Garciaparra, who has never claimed to be a natural third baseman, but accepted the move because of the team's need. Garciaparra went 0-for-3, ending the game with a groundout and is 1-for-10 three games into his return.
Retaining a sense of humor, Torre said he would consider yet more lineup changes for Sunday.
"I'll look at it, see what seems reasonable -- and probably do something other than that," he said.