ATLANTA—The Cubs didn't want Sergio Mitre to try to replace Mark Prior when they stuck him in the rotation during spring training.
"Let Sergio be Sergio," was the mantra management spread all spring.
But the previously untouchable Cubs bullpen imploded after Mitre left, resulting in a 5-2 loss to Atlanta before a raucous crowd of 39,685.
"Just have to chalk it up as the first tough loss this year," manager Dusty Baker said. "Actually, a real tough loss."
Julio Franco's three-run double off Kyle Farnsworth was the monster blow in Atlanta's four-run eighth, dropping the Cubs to 2-3. In a sensational 13-pitch at-bat in which he fouled off eight two-strike pitches, the 45-year-old Franco cranked a bases-clearing double off the right-field wall on a 2-2 pitch, sending the Cubs into a free fall.
Baker called it "one of the best at-bats" he ever had seen, adding it was "tough" for Farnsworth because he was working his third straight day.
Another wild affair began to get interesting when Todd Hollandsworth's home run off Jaret Wright in the fifth inning tied the game 1-1. Derrek Lee's RBI sacrifice fly one inning later put the Cubs on top, and Mitre was wheeling and dealing like a vintage Prior.
But Baker replaced Mitre after Marcus Giles' two-out, broken-bat single in the eighth, on the 97th pitch the Cubs rookie threw. He yielded two runs on five hits in 72/3 innings.
"We took him as far as we thought we could take him," Baker said, noting Mitre's previous high this spring was 84 pitches. "We just couldn't let him face Chipper Jones, who's dangerous up there."
Baker called on rookie left-hander Andy Pratt to turn around the switch-hitting Jones, saying he didn't want to overwork veteran lefty Kent Mercker, who pitched in the previous two games. But the former Braves reliever walked Jones on four pitches, then proceeded to walk J.D. Drew on five, bouncing the last pitch several feet in front of the plate.
With the bases loaded and the crowd in full-metal form, Farnsworth came in and threw three straight balls to Andruw Jones, eventually walking in the tying run on a 3-2 pitch. The classic Farnsworth-Franco battle had everyone in the ballpark on edge, but Franco ultimately pushed Farnsworth off the ledge with a sizzling shot off the auxiliary scoreboard.
"I have nothing to say," Farnsworth said after the game, waving off reporters before a single question could be asked.
The Cubs' offense was missing in action once again, managing only four hits off Wright and three Braves relievers. Ex-Cub Antonio Alfonseca earned the victory and Kevin Gryboski notched his first career save.
It may have been small consolation after the crushing loss, but Mitre's head-turning performance was something to build on. After a shaky first in which he allowed a run on a wild pitch, he quickly settled down, eventually recording 14 groundouts and three strikeouts in a dazzling performance.
"I got more comfortable," Mitre said. "Everything after the first inning was nice and fluid. The first inning I tried a little too hard, aiming a little bit. After that it was nice and easy."
Both the Cubs and Braves were running on fumes Saturday after the emotional, 15-inning affair of Friday night, which the Cubs won despite another feeble hitting performance.
"Invariably, everybody's tired because you can't go to sleep after a game like that you're so wound up," Baker said before the game.
Another sleepless night was in order after Saturday's loss, as the Cubs continue to wait for the lineup to awaken from its early-season coma.