ATLANTA - A 6-2 homestand put Atlanta back in the wild-card race, but the Braves didn't leave Turner Field with quite the hope for momentum.
An eighth inning like Thursday's will take away from a little of the good feeling.
Sharp defensive play, as much as timely hitting and strong pitching, had characterized the Braves' recent improvement. But that wasn't the case this time.
Trying for a four-game sweep of San Francisco, Atlanta self-destructed and lost to the Giants 5-1 on four unearned runs in a frightful inning that included two botched bunt plays.
Mike Gonzalez was knocked out of the game when Nate Schierholtz, the first batter of the eighth, lined a single off the pitcher's arm. Then things went from bad to worse.
Gonzalez (3-3) suffered just a left forearm contusion, X-rays coming back negative. But he ended up taking the loss as the Giants took advantage of miscues by the Braves on consecutive sacrifice bunt attempts, first base Casey Kotchman and pitcher Peter Moylan the culprits.
Right fielder Ryan Church also had a throwing error during the misadventure, much to the dismay of the crowd of 31,727 that included more than a few Braves fans with brooms.
The Braves had never swept the Giants in a four-game series in Atlanta and they still haven't. The Braves ended up taking three of four, just like they had done against the New York Mets.
"I'm not going to harp on any of the bad stuff that happened," said third baseman Chipper Jones. "We played an awesome homestand."
With Philadelphia surging, first place in the National League East seems out of reach for Atlanta. But at 49-47, the wild-card is still a possibility. San Francisco (51-44) is one of the teams to beat out.
The Braves play a weekend series at Milwaukee beginning tonight before going to Florida for three games on Tuesday through next Thursday.
High-priced Giants left-hander Barry Zito (6-10) had been struggling. But he limited Atlanta to just three hits over seven innings, pitching around five walks. Zito struck out six.
"He saved us," said Giants manager Bruce Bochy, whose team is 2-5 on a 10-game road trip. "It would have been tough to come in here and get swept."
Atlanta's run came on a second-inning leadoff homer by red-hot Yunel Escobar, who went the other way and had his drive graze off the right-field foul pole. The home run, which tied the game, was Escobar's 11th of the season.
Escobar batted cleanup with Brian McCann not in the starting lineup and was 1-for-3 with a walk, raising his average to .309. He had four homers and 13 RBIs on the homestand, and is batting .396 in July.
Escobar, McCann and Martin Prado have been the Braves' hottest hitters and they provided what little offense Atlanta could muster in the series finally.
Prado, hitting .324, was 1-for-2 with a pair of walks, while McCann had a pinch-hit double in the ninth inning.
McCann has an 11-game hitting streak and was 11-for-29 with two homers and 10 RBIs during the homestand, lifting his average to .307.
Kotchman took a career-best 14-game hitting streak into Thursday, but was 0-for-3. Included was a bases-loaded strikeout to end the fourth inning after Zito had issued three walks.
Braves starter Kenshin Kawakami allowed a first-inning run on a walk and Pablo Sandoval's RBI double. He gave up four hits and walked three over five innings.
Braves manager Bobby Cox was ejected for the third time this season, running his record career total to 146. He argued a strike-three call on Escobar in the sixth inning that resulted in a double play when Prado was caught stealing on what may have been ball four.
"A little high?" said Cox when asked about the pitch called a strike by home plate Jeff Kellogg. "I've never seen a ball called a strike like that in 50 years."
Javier Vazquez (7-7) will start the series opener at Milwaukee for the Braves, facing left-hander Manny Parra (4-8). Vazquez, who has a 2.86 ERA, skipped a start before the All-Star break, but return to beat the Mets on Sunday. He pitched seven innings, allowing one run on six hits.
SideBar: Braves at Brewers
· Today, 8:05 p.m. (SS)
· Saturday, 7:05 p.m. (SS)
· Sunday, 2:05 p.m. (FSS)