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Braves win on sloppy play on sloppy field

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The rain that began before the first pitch and
never relented turned RFK Stadium's infield into a messy mix of mud
and puddles by the time Cristian Guzman crouched for Raul Mondesi's
bases-loaded grounder with two outs in the ninth inning.

The Washington Nationals' shortstop gathered the wet ball
without a problem, but his throw skipped past first baseman Nick
Johnson and into the visiting dugout, allowing two runs to score
and helping the Atlanta Braves rally to win 2-1 Thursday.

"I'll tell you one thing: I'm just glad nobody got hurt out
there. It was so bad out there on the field -- tough to run, tough
to play defense," Nationals second baseman Jose Vidro said. "You
really can't blame anybody for this loss. It was tough to be out
there."

Asked whether he thought play should have been stopped,
Nationals manager Frank Robinson said: "I have no control over
that. I can't tell the umpires to stop the game. It's up to them.
They're more inclined to still try to complete those games nowadays
than stop them, and I don't know why."

Between innings, workers dumped extra dirt from bags and buckets
on the mound, in the batter's boxes and around the infield. Vidro
said he hopes groundskeepers will make improvements while the
Nationals are out of town the next three days.

RFK hasn't housed a major league team since the Senators left in
1971, and delays in the deal bringing the Montreal Expos to
Washington meant work on preparing the place for baseball didn't
get going until January.

Since the Nationals' home opener a week ago, there have been
concerns about the softness of the mound, and keeping the field in
top shape is made harder because the stadium also is used by Major
League Soccer's D.C. United.

Guzman wouldn't speak to reporters. But Robinson called the
infield's condition "horrible," and third baseman Vinny Castilla
said: "I've never played in an infield like that in the big
leagues."

It was the first loss of the season for Washington's bullpen,
which entered leading the majors with a 5-0 record. The team also
had been 5-0 in games decided by one or two runs.

"It looked like we were going to be snakebit there, but it
turned out all right," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "I was
surprised there wasn't some more throwing errors early when the
game started. You play nine innings and no one threw the ball away
-- that's pretty miraculous."

After John Patterson shut down the Braves for seven innings and
Hector Carrasco threw a perfect eighth, closer Chad Cordero (2-1)
opened the ninth by giving up singles to Marcus Giles and Johnny
Estrada on two-strike pitches and a walk to Chipper Jones.

Cordero then struck out Brian Jordan and Adam LaRoche, and it
appeared he was out of trouble when Mondesi rolled a 2-0 pitch
toward Guzman. But the throwing error by Guzman -- No. 2 among AL
shortstops last season with a .983 fielding percentage for
Minnesota -- left Cordero with his second blown save.

"I was happy getting the ground ball. It was unfortunate that
he threw it away. But he's not the one to blame. I'm the one to
blame," Cordero said. "I'm the one who loaded the bases."

Chris Reitsma (1-0) pitched a perfect eighth for the victory,
and Dan Kolb finished up for his fifth save, with the help of
Andruw Jones' diving catch of pinch-hitter Carlos Baerga's liner.

Atlanta's comeback prevented John Smoltz from taking another
tough loss and dropping to 0-4 in his return to starting. He
allowed five hits in seven innings, including Jose Guillen's RBI
single in the fourth.

"It didn't look like we were going to get it done again," said
Smoltz, who struck out nine. "I'm just glad we're talking about a
win today and not bad luck. "

The Braves have scored just two runs with him in the game. The
1996 NL Cy Young Award winner moved back to the rotation after
being a closer the past three seasons.

"He's dynamite again. He's had three of the best games I've
ever seen him pitch -- ever," Cox said. "We haven't gotten him any
runs."

Patterson lowered his ERA to 0.86 by allowing two singles and
two walks while striking out five over seven innings. It was the
second straight start in which he threw seven shutout innings.

"The team's playing well, and that just gives me more
confidence," he said.

Rain fell as he warmed up. After the second batter, Giles,
grounded a single to left, there was a 2-minute, 40-second delay as
workers raked the dirt on the mound, then tamped it down -- all
under Patterson's watchful eye.

When play resumed, Patterson struck out Chipper Jones, beginning
a stretch in which he retired 16 straight batters.

"His last three starts, he's been light's out," Castilla said.

Game notes
Washington went 4-3 in its first homestand. ... Guillen's
RBI ended an 0-for-11 start with runners in scoring position. ...
Andruw Jones, mired in a career-worst 0-for-27 slump, entered in
the ninth as a defensive replacement.