Cardinals watch another one slip away

Monday, August 5, 2002

ATLANTA -- The St. Louis Cardinals finally got a hit off Damian Moss. It didn't do them any good.

The Australian left-hander allowed just one hit in eight innings, and the Atlanta Braves beat the Cardinals 2-1 on Gary Sheffield's leadoff homer in the ninth Sunday night.

The Braves, running away in the NL East, won their sixth in a row and swept the three-game series against the Central-leading Cardinals.

Overall, St. Louis has a five-game losing streak, tying its season high and bringing second-place Cincinnati within two games.

Moss pitched seven no-hit innings in his other appearance against the Cardinals on May 3. He was lifted after throwing 116 pitches and didn't get a decision as the Braves won 2-1 in 11 innings.

These days, hardly anyone is hitting Moss. In his last three starts, the rookie has given up a mere four hits in 22 innings.

"I've never been one of those guys who gave up a lot of hits," Moss said. "I don't know what it is because I've never faced myself. I can't explain it."

The Cardinals can't figure him out, either.

"The guy on the other side was awesome," said St. Louis starter Andy Benes, who gave up only four hits in 7 1/3 innings. "There are days when you have to go out and win the game 1-0."

The Braves scored the tying run in the eighth and Sheffield gave Atlanta its sixth straight victory, hitting a 397-foot shot into the left-field stands to lead off the ninth against Dave Veres (4-7).

Down 0-2 in the count, Sheffield basically hit the ball one-handed, lunging at a split-finger fastball that didn't break outside far enough.

"When the count is in your favor, you can take a shot for the fences," he said. "I was just trying to make contact."

Veres was stunned when the ball sailed over the fence.

"I'll take that pitch nine out of 10 times," he said. "It was 2 inches in front of the plate and 2 inches outside. It's amazing he could hit it that hard that far."

John Smoltz (2-2) got the win with a scoreless ninth, but Moss did most of the work with another dominating performance. Mike Matheny had the lone hit for the Cardinals, a third-inning single that led to an unearned run.

Benes took a shutout into the eighth, but Henry Blanco knocked out the right-hander with a one-out double off the left-field wall.

The slow-running Blanco was replaced by Jason Marquis, a starting pitcher who got the win Saturday. That proved to be a key move.

Marquis stayed put when Michael Crudale struck out pinch-hitter Matt Franco on three pitches. But Rafael Furcal, who barely missed making the third out when a foul pop dropped between three players, singled up the middle to bring home the tying run.

Matheny blocked the plate and Cardinals manager Tony La Russa argued that Marquis never touched home. But umpire Jeff Nelson ruled that the sliding runner barely nicked the plate with his left foot before tumbling over backward.

"I was trying to push his front leg out of the way," Marquis said. "By the time he tagged me, I was already by him. There's no doubt in my mind that I touched the plate."

If Blanco had been running, he likely would have been tagged out easily.

Benes gave up just four hits in 7 1-3 innings to the Braves, who have beaten him 14 times in his career -- more than any other opponent.

The Cardinals scored in the third, benefiting from a couple of miscues by the Braves' defense.

With one out, Matheny singled to left and moved to second when Moss fooled first baseman Julio Franco on a throw over. Franco thought Moss was going toward home and already was charging to field a possible bunt by Benes, causing the balk.

Benes wound up grounding to second, moving Matheny to third, and Fernando Vina walked to set up the key play of the game. Edgar Renteria skipped a hard grounder to third, where Helms attempted a backhand pickup but pulled his glove up too early.

Helms, filling in for the injured Vinny Castilla, looked around in disbelief while the ball rolled into left field and Matheny trotted home.

Helms has made most of his appearances at first base this season.

Moss wasn't fazed by the mistake. He retired the last 16 hitters he faced.

"If you keep these guys close, there's a good chance we're going to win," he said. "That's the kind of team we are. We can cause damage from one to eight in the lineup."

The Braves increased their division lead to 17 1/2 games over New York, their largest since ending the 1998 season with an 18-game cushion over the Mets. Only a total collapse will prevent Atlanta from winning an unprecedented 11th straight division title.

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