Six Pitchers Later, Nats Lose Their War of Attrition
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
The box score alone drew a picture of exhaustion. The blur of small print -- elongated by 11 innings of footnotes, pinch hitters and fielding changes -- featured just about every name on the roster, referenced just about every turning point, and served as a fair indication of why yesterday's game at Nationals Park rewarded two things above all: strategy and survival.
For the Washington Nationals, this was getaway day; originally, a day for resting key starters. But 3 hours 14 minutes of baseball complicated that strategy, leading to a 4-3 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers in which Manager Manny Acta used six pitchers, pulled a mid-inning double switch, and ended the game with four fielders in positions different than they'd started.
And despite all that, the attempt to outlast the Brewers, and to win the four-game series, ended on fumes.
Reliever Saúl Rivera (3-2), pitching for the second day in a row, this time with a pitch count that soared to 44, let in the game-deciding run in the 11th after allowing a leadoff double to Prince Fielder.
In their last chance, the Nationals needed to build a rally out of atypical parts. Backup catcher Wil Nieves, for instance, was called on to pinch hit for the first time all year. By grounding out to the shortstop, he shared at least one similarity with the final 10 Washington batters: None of them reached base.
By the time the game ended, the Nationals' lineup card had just one conspicuous absence. Ryan Zimmerman, resting a sore left shoulder, never left the bench. He hadn't taken batting practice, either. Pinch hitting in the 11th, Zimmerman later said, would have removed all benefits from the missed start. "I'm not going to take 20 or 25 warmup swings and go back to ground zero," he said.
"He was not supposed to play today," Acta said. "It was recommended by doctors that he take the day completely off."
For Washington, the attempt to survive this game with depth began in earnest in the sixth, when Acta handed the game to his bullpen. Starter Jason Bergmann -- again precise, again un-scored upon -- lost just enough momentum the third time through Milwaukee's lineup that Acta took notice. With one out, Mike Cameron doubled to left. The next hitter, Ryan Braun, allowed Bergmann to get away with a hanging breaking ball, just getting under it and popping it to left.
Acta didn't want to see what would happen if Bergmann faced Fielder. "He had 90-plus pitches, and he was leaving the pitches up," Acta explained.
Thanks to the 28,552 at Nationals Park, Bergmann left to an ovation. Thanks to some early Washington offense, including a Cristian Guzmán homer off Milwaukee starter Ben Sheets, Bergmann also left to a 2-0 lead.
Washington has relied on its bullpen this season to compensate for a toothless offense. Of the 23 major league pitchers who entered yesterday with 25 or more games pitched, Washington had three of them -- Jon Rauch, Luis Ayala and Rivera. Of course, Acta said, "we can't afford to have Saúl or Ayala and Rauch every time we're in a game or we're ahead or we're tied. It's just not possible. Some of these guys are going to step up."
Left-hander Charlie Manning, who made his major league debut Saturday, recorded the final out of the sixth by forcing a Fielder flyout.
Bergmann was the first to congratulate Manning as he returned to the dugout.
For the second game in a row, though, runs surrendered in the later innings allowed Milwaukee back into the game. The Brewers picked away at every opportunity and almost every relief pitcher, save for Rauch, who pitched a perfect ninth.
They scored one run off of Manning, one run off of Joel Hanrahan and another off of Brian Sanches -- though to be fair, his was unearned because of a Dmitri Young fielding error.
Meantime, Milwaukee's bullpen muted the Nationals. Except for Young's solo home run in the eighth, which tied the game at three, the Brewers relievers retired every Washington hitter during the last five innings. They combined for nine strikeouts. Most important, they enabled Milwaukee to survive all the way to the 11th inning, when Fielder slapped a double into the left field corner and moved to third on a sacrifice bunt by Corey Hart. Rivera threw three perfect pitches to the next batter, Russell Branyan, inching closer to escaping the inning with a strikeout.
But his next pitch was a game-deciding mistake.
Rivera's pitch sailed right down the middle. And Gabe Kapler returned it, on a line, right in front of center fielder Lastings Milledge.