Punchless Again, Nats Get Strong-Armed by Sheets

Backed up by Willie Harris, center fielder Lastings Milledge makes the catch.
Backed up by Willie Harris, center fielder Lastings Milledge makes the catch. (By Darren Hauck -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2008

MILWAUKEE, Aug. 9 -- The zeroes, linked together, span the width of two games, two days and two menaces. They span two box scores and 18 innings, lighting a trail that leads all the way back to the Washington Nationals' arrival in Milwaukee, where the Brewers greeted them with domination done twice.

The hardest thing about facing CC Sabathia, it turns out, is recovering from him. Because Saturday night, one day after enduring Sabathia's shutout, the Nationals ran into the rare pitcher capable of carbon-copying such an effort. Ben Sheets, high water to Sabathia's hell, finalized the Nationals' collision with two of baseball's top arms by pitching another shutout, a 6-0 defeat that left the Washington's lineup helpless.

Not so long ago, the Nationals had a winning streak, some newfound offensive efficacy, even a budding notion that they could agitate the best of the best. Entering this series, Sabathia-Sheets -- a union formed when Milwaukee traded for the first of those starters one month ago -- stood as a challenge, not a roadblock. But the last two nights at Miller Park have introduced reality to those hopes.

Against Sabathia: no runs, five hits.

Against Sheets: no runs, five hits.

"That's front-line pitching right there," Manager Manny Acta said. "He was just overpowering today."

Added Willie Harris, "Two days in a row we've faced two of the top pitchers in the league."

The whole scene felt like a sequel. Sure, Sheets threw 10 more pitches than his left-handed counterpart (113 instead of 103), but his night followed the same arc. Sniffing a shutout, his velocity hit its high point in the final innings. He charged ahead in counts with pinpoint location. Washington's batters gawked at Sheets's breaking ball -- which he consistently threw at 80- to 82-mph, about 5 mph above the major league average. When it ended with a 1-2-3 ninth, fireworks popped in Miller Park's center field. Sheets walked off the field as teammates threw arms around him and slapped his back.

With Sheets and Sabathia atop their rotation, the Brewers have the sort of one-two punch that can greet a sizzling team -- remember, the Nationals had won six of seven before landing in Milwaukee -- and knock the heat right out of it. Sheets has little of Sabathia's swagger and showmanship but all of his dominance. And Saturday, Sheets moved through Washington's order the way a lawnmower moves through grass. Eleven pitches in the first. Twelve in the second. Eight more in the fourth. Nine in the fifth.

With first-pitch strikes, Sheets prohibited patience. Even in the eighth, when Washington built its first legitimate scoring chance with a Harris double that followed a Ronnie Belliard leadoff single, Sheets escaped. With a Ryan Langerhans first-pitch line-out to first. With an Emilio Bonifacio strikeout, an at-bat where the second baseman saw nothing but breaking balls. With a Cristian Guzmán inning-ending roller to second. Finally, with a thunderous ovation from the Miller Park sell-out crowd.

"I mean, we definitely thought we'd have a chance to get a run in, but Sheets," Harris said, 'No no.' "

As Sheets asserted his dominance, retiring 17 of the first 18 he faced, Washington starter Tim Redding was struggling to keep his grasp on the game. Unable to throw first-pitch strikes, Redding worked behind in the count all night. In the third, the first three batters in the Milwaukee order -- including pinch hitter Gabe Kapler, subbing for Ryan Braun, who left with lower back tightness -- strung together a double, a single and a single. The first two scored. When the inning ended, Redding's numbers already were episodic: He'd thrown 71 pitches. He'd walked four, one intentionally.

One inning later, Milwaukee's padded its lead with back-to-back two-out home runs from Ray Durham and J.J. Hardy. The first of those blasts came on an 0-1 pitch. The next came on a 3-1 pitch.

Before Redding exited after five, he issued one more home run -- this one to Corey Hart, who gave the Brewers a 5-0 lead.

"I mean, they've got a lot of righties and a lot of lefties and everybody hits the ball out of the ballpark," said Redding, now 8-7.

For Milwaukee, this game actualized the hopes born with the acquisition of Sabathia. The Brewers want the league's strongest one-two pitching punch. But until Saturday, Sheets had an 0-3 record (in five starts) with Sabathia as a teammate. Only this weekend, finally, did dominance answer dominance.

"I'd rather give credit to the guy when he pitches well than pick on my lineup," Acta said. "Because we beat Aaron Cook, who had 14 wins, in Colorado [on Monday]. When this guy is like that, you have to just hope that they're off and your pitcher has to keep you in the game. But I'm not beating up on my guys."

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