The Starter: Chipper caps comeback
Braves win in 12th inning as epic rally demoralizes Cubs
ATLANTA -- Chipper Jones ended Randy Wells' historic bid and then sent a chill through the Windy City by handing the Cubs a loss that extended the mediocrity that they'd experienced during the season's first two months.
Looking for his first Major League victory, Wells mowed down the Braves for 6 2/3 innings, starting talk of a no-hitter for the rookie. But things began to sour when Jones ended his no-hit bid with a single in the seventh. Atlanta rallied for five runs over the final two frames to send the game to extras, then Jones delivered a nearly identical opposite-field single in the 12th to stun the Cubs, 6-5, at Turner Field on Tuesday night.
"These are character-builders that tend to gel clubs," Jones said after his single off Aaron Heilman allowed the Braves to end an 0-23 skid in games that they trailed entering the ninth inning.
Across the way, a demoralized Cubs bunch had to deal with the frustration created by the reality that they'd ruined Wells' masterpiece and their top two relievers had squandered a four-run, eighth-inning lead.
Considered favorites to win a third consecutive National League Central crown entering the season, the Cubs currently find themselves in fourth place with a 25-25 record. Since moving a season-best seven games above .500 on May 16, they have lost 11 of their past 15 games.
"The five combined runs we gave up in the eighth and ninth innings was uncalled for," said Cubs closer Kevin Gregg after suffering his second blown save in 10 opportunities. "But we're going to get through it. It happens every now and then."
Having completed 15 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings, the Cubs' bullpen entered this series opener with a sense of confidence. But if it wasn't shaken by Carlos Marmol's struggles in the eighth, it was certainly dented by Jeff Francoeur's two-out, game-tying home run off Gregg in the ninth.
"That was probably the biggest hit of the year for us," Jones said about the homer hit by Francoeur, who had recorded just four extra-base hits in his previous 131 at-bats.
Francoeur's first homer in a span of 108 at-bats officially ruined what had the makings of a memorable evening for Wells, who has gone winless through while posting a 1.69 ERA through his first five career starts.
Previously victimized by a lack of run support, Wells began his five-pitch first inning with a lead that had come courtesy of the fact that Alfonso Soriano had drilled Kenshin Kawakami's fifth pitch of the game over the right-field wall. It was Soriano's 54th career leadoff homer, putting him in second place on the all-time list behind Rickey Henderson (81).
Before Jones ruined Wells' no-hit bid with two outs in the seventh inning, the Braves' only previous baserunner came in the third inning, when Yunel Escobar used his dramatic skills to lead plate umpire Brian O'Nora to believe he'd been hit with a pitch. Replays showed the pitch struck Escobar's bat.
Wells responded to the ruling by getting Jones to ground into an inning-ending double play. That started a string where the rookie retired eight straight before watching the Braves third baseman direct a misplaced slider into left field.
"I wasn't thinking about [the no-hitter]," Wells said. "I wasn't trying to get it. I was just trying to make pitches, and I left a slider out over the plate, and Chipper did what he was supposed to do with it."
Jones' single seemed to provide a spark that ignited a rally in the eighth. The Braves' scoring began when Garret Anderson opened the inning with a leadoff homer. Anderson returned to the dugout just in time to see Derrek Lee drop the throw Ryan Theriot produced after fielding Martin Prado's routine grounder.
Lee's error gave the Braves a runner at first base when Carlos Marmol entered with nobody out in the eighth. The Cubs' four-run lead seemed safe until the hard-throwing right-hander hit a batter and issued two walks during a span of six batters.
While Francoeur undoubtedly delivered the evening's clutch hit, he indicated that the key plate appearance occurred when Kelly Johnson looked at a 3-2 fastball and consequently drew a bases-loaded walk off Marmol.
"We were down 5-0," Jones said. "We were dead in the water. But hopefully that hit I got in the seventh kind of got everybody to relax. The longer and longer you go with a guy having a no-no, the tighter the grip goes around the bat. Once we got the hit out of the way, we just started pecking away."
Saddled by an inconsistent offense throughout the season, the Braves seemed destined for defeat when the Cubs tallied four runs during Kenshin Kawakami's seven-inning effort and then added an insurance run with Lee's eighth-inning solo homer.
But the Braves took advantage of the opportunities they were given in the eighth inning and staged their ninth-inning rally with the help of a wild pitch by Gregg that allowed Anderson to reach safely after swinging and missing a third strike.
Two batters later, Francoeur delivered the blast that sent the game to extras, setting up Jones' opportunity.
In the 12th inning, after hitting a one-out single off Heilman, Escobar alertly stole second base after Jones had encountered a two-strike count.
With two strikes, the Cubs weren't going to intentionally walk Jones like they had in the 10th inning. Instead, they attempted to pitch him carefully and in the process, Heilman caught too much of the plate with a 3-2 fastball that the veteran third baseman directed into left field to win the game and cap his memorable evening.
"We're not going to sulk over this," Wells said. "We just need to keep fighting to win ballgames."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.