ATLANTA -- If this trip to Turner Field was a test to gauge how prepared the Indians are for a push toward the postseason, they still have a lot of work to do.
On Thursday night, the Indians received a strong effort from Ubaldo Jimenez, but were dealt a 3-1 loss to the Braves that completed a sweep of the three-game Interleague series. The National League East-leading Braves boast the largest division lead in the Majors and they showed the Tribe why over the past three nights.
With more than a month left on the schedule, Indians manager Terry Francona emphasized that the season has not slipped away from his ballclub.
"We've got a lot of good baseball left," Francona said. "I wish we would've played better here, but my goodness, no."
In the finale of Cleveland's first trip to Atlanta since 2004, the Braves only once solved starter Jimenez, but one breakthrough was enough in light of the Indians' ongoing offensive lull. Brian McCann's towering three-run home run off Jimenez in the third inning provided all the damage necessary for righty Kris Medlen to guide the Braves to the win column.
This is not what the Indians had in mind for a critical road trip that continues in Detroit on Friday night.
The first-place Tigers defeated the A's, 7-6, in walk-off fashion earlier on Thursday, increasing the Tribe's deficit to 6 1/2 games in the American League Central as it pulled within four games of the AL's second Wild Card spot.
"Right now, we're in a stretch where if you make a mistake," Jimenez said, "you're probably going to pay for it with the game. We're not scoring a lot of runs. That's part of baseball."
Cleveland has stayed within striking distance largely due to solid contributions from its pitching staff, which ranks fourth in the AL in ERA (3.37) for August. It has been the offense that has hindered the club's chances of making up ground in either the division or Wild Card races.
The Indians rank last in the American League offensively in batting average (.227), on-base percentage (.295), slugging percentage (.354) and runs scored (85) in August. A seemingly team-wide slump has infected nearly all of Cleveland's top hitters. Michael Bourn (.217 average), Michael Brantley (.227), Nick Swisher (.223), Carlos Santana (.225) and Asdrubal Cabrera (.213) have each taken steps back in this crucial month.
Dating to Aug. 2, the Indians have scored two runs or fewer in 12 of 25 games, going 1-11 in those contests. To put it another way, Cleveland has gone 10-3 over the past 25 games when scoring at least three runs.
"When this team is red hot, the whole team is red hot," Indians veteran Jason Giambi said. "And, unfortunately, when we're not red hot, we don't swing the bat. We have a tougher time manufacturing, which is kind of weird with the speed that we have and the agility players that we have. You'd think we could overcome some of that and kind of steal a few wins here and there.
"For some reason, we just don't push it over the top. I think that's a team coming together and learning."
It was the same story on a muggy night in Atlanta.
Jimenez gave the Indians seven solid innings, but was not rewarded with much in the way of run support. The right-hander finished with at least 10 strikeouts and no walks for the first time in his career, and became the first Cleveland pitcher to turn in consecutive double-digit strikeout performances since CC Sabathia did so in three straight starts in June 2008.
Thanks to the lack of offense, Jimenez also become the first Indians pitcher to go 0-2 in back-to-back starts with at least 10 strikeouts since 1976 (Dennis Eckersley).
"Whatever the reason this late in the season, he seems to have found a little extra gear," Francona said. "He made a mistake to the wrong guy and that was their three runs. Really, the whole series was their ability to get a big hit and we didn't."
Jimenez's lone misstep came in the third inning, when he allowed the Braves to work into a two-out situation with runners on the corners. McCann followed by drilling a 1-1 slider deep over the right-field wall, where the ball sailed to the back of the first section of stands for a three-run homer -- his 19th of the season.
Cleveland's offense, which went 0-for-18 with runners in scoring position in the three-game series, could not come through with much against Medlen, who scattered six hits in his seven innings. The right-hander finished with six strikeouts, no walks and only twice was forced to work with a runner in scoring position.
"They were pretty close games," Medlen said. "So it's not like we blew them out of the water. [McCann] capitalized on a huge mistake pitch. I had to take advantage of that and keep putting zeroes up."
The Tribe's offensive drought ended in the eighth inning, when Lonnie Chisenhall came off the bench to pinch-hit for Jimenez. Chisenhall belted his eighth homer of the season, a leadoff shot to right field off reliever David Carpenter that trimmed the Braves' lead to 3-1. Unfortunately, it marked only the third run in 27 innings in Atlanta.
Capped off by closer Craig Kimbrel's 43rd save, Atlanta's bullpen sealed the sweep.
"We're not hot right now, by any means," Francona said. "When you're not knocking the ball all over the ballpark, getting key hits are huge. And we haven't been able to."