Cubs blow 6-2 lead in elimination loss

CHICAGO (AP) -- No World Series appearance again for the Cubs.
This time, not even a spot in the postseason, thanks to a
monumental final-week collapse.

A season that started with such high hopes saw them eliminated
from playoff contention Saturday by their fifth straight loss, 8-6
to the Atlanta Braves.

"If you told me at the All-Star break we could be going home
Oct. 3, I would have told you you were crazy," outfielder Moises
Alou said.

"It hurts so bad because we had such a good team. I thought we
would have a longer ride. I'm very disappointed. We're a lot better
than this. Everybody knows there is no way the Cubs should be

But they are after losing seven of eight and squandering the
wild-card lead in the last week. Chicago led this game 6-2 before
the Braves rallied.

Ahead by 1½ games before a game last Saturday, their slide began
when they blew a 3-0 lead in the ninth with two outs and eventually
lost to the Mets 4-3 in 11 innings.

"It's hard to take," manager Dusty Baker said. "It seems like
this last week has been a nightmare week. Whatever you do, it seems
like it doesn't work. One of the worst stretches I've been through
as a manager in a pennant stretch."

The NL East champion Braves won the game but starting pitcher
John Thomson -- scheduled to open Game 2 of the divisional series --
left after three innings with what manager Bobby Cox called a
pulled side muscle.

Cleanup hitter Chipper Jones departed after being hit near the
right hand by a pitch from Carlos Zambrano in the fifth. Jones had
a bruise, no X-rays were needed and he will be evaluated daily.

"It's sore. It doesn't feel like it's real bad. It should be
just a couple of days," Jones said.

Thomson will be re-evaluated Sunday and his playoff start is up
in the air.

"It's a real problem for any athlete in a baseball uniform,"
Cox said. "But it may be mild enough where he might be available
when his turn comes. He's a question mark right now."

Chicago began the day two games behind Houston and San
Francisco, knowing it had to win and get plenty of help.

Alou, Aramis Ramirez and Sammy Sosa all homered for the Cubs,
but Zambrano couldn't hold a 6-2 lead and boos poured out from
Wrigley Field after Atlanta rallied.

J.D. Drew's eighth-inning triple got Atlanta the lead for good.

Zambrano tossed his cap into the stands after being pulled in
the sixth inning, the victim of some shaky fielding when center
fielder Jose Macias -- a reserve who got a start -- lost a ball in
the sun.

"I was mad at myself," Zambrano said. "This is sad, to not be
in the playoffs."

The Braves got a small measure of revenge in knocking the Cubs
out of postseason contention. Last October, Chicago beat Atlanta in
the first round of the playoffs.

Last year, the Cubs were in great position to make the World
Series for the first time since 1945, and possibly win their first
title since 1908.

But Mark Prior could not hold a three-run lead in the eighth
inning of Game 6 of the NL championship series against Florida --
the game where fan Steve Bartman deflected a foul ball -- and Kerry
Wood blew a 5-3 edge in Game 7.

"We were close last year and I felt we had a better team this
year than last," Alou said. "I thought we had a team to go all
the way."

The Braves trailed 6-5 when Julio Franco had a pinch-hit single
to open the eighth and Marcus Giles blooped a single to right. Mike
Remlinger relieved Kyle Farnsworth (4-5) and Drew drove the triple
to right-center field. Wilson Betemit made it 8-6 with a sacrifice

Kevin Gryboski (3-2) pitched a scoreless seventh and John Smoltz
got his 44th save with 1 1-3 innings of relief.

The Cubs put a runner on base in the ninth, but Smoltz struck
out Nomar Garciaparra and Alou to end it.

Sosa moved into sole possession of seventh place on the career
homer list with his 574th -- 35th of the season -- in the fourth
against Juan Cruz.

Game notes
Braves coach Pat Corrales was ejected in the fifth for
arguing after Estrada was called out. ... Macias got the start in
center because Corey Patterson was in a 9-for-56 slump. Patterson
entered the game in the seventh.