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Braves simply aren't hitting
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10/04/2003  1:00 AM ET 
Braves simply aren't hitting
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Gary Sheffield reacts after being hit by a pitch by Mark Prior in the sixth inning. (Jeff Roberson/AP)
CHICAGO -- The Braves aren't hitting. Sure, the Cubs are pitching. But Atlanta, which built a 101-win season on one of the best offenses in history, really isn't hitting. Braves batters sport a combined .191 average through three games of the NL Division Series, and that's not the worst of it.

A team that slugged 587 extra-base hits, eighth-most in the history of baseball, has three through three games -- or less than its usual output in any given single game. The Braves hit 235 homers in the regular season, which ranks 15th all-time. They have one in this series.

And it's not going to get any easier.

The Braves could have to play Saturday without Gary Sheffield. The MVP candidate described his condition as simply "not good" after being hit on the left hand with a pitch in the sixth inning on Friday night. He stayed in the game, popping up in the eighth, but was in significant pain throughout the evening.

"You can't come out right there," he said. "I've got to finish that game, you know? I just took one shot. He threw a pitch and I took one shot. I've just got to hope it isn't broke.

"It's a situation where, I knew it would bother me, but I couldn't go out and not try to finish the game."

Sheffield was diagnosed with a contusion on the outside of his hand -- not on his knuckles, for what little consolation that may be. He will be re-examined on Saturday morning, but an X-ray is not in the plans at this time.

Even before he was hit, however, Sheffield was one of many scuffling Braves. He's 1-for-10 in the series with two walks. Chipper Jones is 1-for-11. Andruw Jones is 1-for-9, though he's walked three times. Of the four sluggers in the heart of the Atlanta order, only Javy Lopez is hitting well, and despite a 4-for-12 mark he does not have an extra-base hit.

Chicago's starting pitching -- Kerry Wood, followed by Carlos Zambrano, followed by Mark Prior -- is part of it. Wood permitted two hits in 7 1/3 innings in Game 1, and Prior yielded two knocks in a complete game in Game 3. But it can't be all of it. If nothing else, those two combined to issue nine walks.

"We didn't really hit that many balls hard [on Friday]," said manager Bobby Cox, "and Prior was a little bit wild early in the game and we couldn't take advantage of it. If a pitcher makes a mistake, somebody's got to get a hit somewhere."

And that's something Atlanta just hasn't done enough of.

"The team we faced, they've got good pitchers," said Andruw Jones. "In this series we've had a chance to take advantage and we never did.

"Maybe because it's such a short series we're not relaxed. We've got to go out there and relax and let things happen. Like we did in the second game in Atlanta, we have to go put the ball in play."

All of the Braves' extra-base hits have come from their second basemen, Marcus Giles and Mark DeRosa. The two are a combined 6-for-12 with two doubles and a home run. The rest of the team is 12-for-82. For those of you who aren't so nimble with numbers, 12-for-82 is a .146 batting average.

"I can't speak for anybody else but I feel fine," Giles said, while allowing that, "hitting is a roller coaster.

"Right now we're on the downside. We've got less than 24 hours -- 12 hours, really -- to get back on the upside."

And they could have to get up without Sheffield, or at least with a diminished Sheff. It will be even tougher for the heart of the order to get going, which could put more pressure on players like DeRosa, Giles, Robert Fick (0-for-10) and Vinny Castilla (2-for-9).

"You can't blame those guys [the middle of the order]," Fick said. "It's nine different guys out on the field. The whole year it's been about picking each other up. We just haven't done that this series.

"We're not a young team. The guys on this team are fearless. Maybe that's working against us. Sometimes when you're a little scared, you focus a little more and just try to put the bat on the ball. I'm as guilty as anybody."

There's one advantage for Atlanta going into Game 4. After facing Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Mark Prior, they draw Matt Clement on Saturday. Clement can be extremely tough, but he also can be hit hard at times. If the Chicago rotation brings a favorable matchup, Clement is it.

But they still have to do the job. And so far the National League's best offense hasn't been able to.

Matthew Leach is a reporter for This story was not subject to approval by Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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