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STL@ATL: Pena connects for a solo home run

ATLANTA -- Justin Upton exited April as one of the National's League's most productive offensive performers and Andrelton Simmons is widely regarded as baseball's top defensive shortstop. But when the Braves needed them to deliver on Monday night at Turner Field, they proved susceptible to the maddening woes that have mounted over the past week.

Simmons committed a rare error that led to two unearned runs in St. Louis' decisive three-run fifth inning and Upton added to his alarming recent strikeout total to end a 4-3 loss that left the Braves with a seven-game losing streak.

"This game is funny because when you're not going good, it finds you all the time," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It finds you in certain situations, but [Upton] will be fine. He'll be fine. There's a couple of guys on this team that I like to be up in that situation, and he's one of them."

Such might have been the case in April, when Upton produced a 1.041 OPS and delivered a number of clutch at-bats that led to victories. But thus far, May has proven to be completely different for the Braves' left fielder, who has gone 1-for-15 with 11 strikeouts through the first four games of this homestand that began with the Giants securing a series sweep.

Upton drew a leadoff walk to begin Atlanta's two-run sixth inning against Cardinals starter Shelby Miller. But he stranded Jason Heyward at second base with a strikeout to end the seventh inning and then came to the plate with two on and two out in the ninth looking for redemption against St. Louis closer Trevor Rosenthal. But, instead, he struck out looking for the third time on the night and fifth time in his past nine plate appearances.

The inability to take advantage of Simmons' leadoff single in the ninth fittingly concluded another frustration-filled night for the Braves, who saw their first hitter reach safely in seven of Monday's nine innings. Atlanta went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and has now hit .118 (6-for-51) in this department during the seven-game skid.

"We were in the whole game, and that's something we haven't been able to say the last week," Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman said. "So, you've got to take the positives when we get them and go in tomorrow with a better mindset."

Given that the Braves had scored less than two runs in five of their previous seven games, tallying three runs can at least be seen as progress. But the only numbers that truly mattered were the ones that showed they were unable to compensate for the four runs -- two earned -- Aaron Harang surrendered in six innings.

Proving much sharper than he was when he obliterated his 0.85 ERA by allowing the Marlins nine earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in his last outing, Harang kept the Cardinals scoreless until the fifth inning. Peter Bourjos snapped an 0-for-19 skid with a leadoff single and advanced to second base when Simmons bobbled Mark Ellis' chopper as he neared second base.

"I felt like his only play was going to be to first," the speedy Bourjos said. "I think we got a good break right there. The ball looked like it was hit pretty good and he was trying to rush and get to second base. Fortunate for us, we were able to capitalize on it."

Simmons' miscue allowed Matt Carpenter to drive in two with a one-out double and it extended the inning long enough for Matt Holliday to record an RBI single. The Braves sure-handed shortstop was also fortunate to not be charged with an error after he bobbled Matt Carpenter's grounder in the third inning.

"I think [Ellis' grounder] just got him kind of off-balance," Harang said. "Those things are going to happen. I told him, 'Hey man, you've got to keep your head up. Don't kick yourself over one little thing like this.' I said, 'You're probably going to save my butt a few times this year, so don't even worry about this.'"

Harang allowed three consecutive singles to begin the sixth, but limited the damage to one run with assistance from a replay review. The inning ended with Yadier Molina's sharp grounder deflecting off Harang's foot to third baseman Chris Johnson. Umpire Gabe Morales initially ruled Johnson missed the bag. But after Gonzalez issued a challenge the call was reversed.

Attempting to spark his slumbering offense, Gonzalez positioned Harang in the eight spot of the lineup and put second baseman Ramiro Pena in the ninth spot to essentially serve as a second leadoff hitter. Pena responded with a two-hit night that was highlighted by his seventh-inning homer of Kevin Siegrist that brought Atlanta within one run.

Gonzalez seems to be planning to keep his starting pitcher in the lineup's eighth spot for at least a week. He was pleased with what he saw as his club generated a number of opportunities against Miller, who allowed two earned runs and six hits in five-plus innings.

Miller was fortunate that Bourjos ran down Freeman's potential RBI double to the third inning and he breathed a sigh of relief when Jason Heyward stranded Simmons at third with a line drive Ellis snared to end the fifth inning.

The Braves finally broke through in the sixth as Upton drew a leadoff walk and scored when Freeman and Evan Gattis followed with a couple of sharp singles that eluded St. Louis first baseman Matt Adams. When Miller exited after Gattis's single, B.J. Upton greeted Pat Neshek with a sacrifice fly. The two-run sixth stands as one of the three multi-run innings Atlanta has produced in their past eight games.

"There were a lot of positives other than at the end," Gonzalez said. "You'd like to get the [win] no matter how you can get it. But offensively, it was a good night." Comments