For Nats, There's No Fun in the Sun

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MILWAUKEE, Aug. 11 -- If the Washington Nationals felt any uncertainty before Monday that this series in Milwaukee wasn't going well, they received confirmation in the mid-afternoon hours, when even the best things in baseball started to haunt them.

The sun was shining, perfect enough for a picnic -- but wait, it cast a nasty shadow bisecting the infield, and the glare reached its worst point just when the Nationals needed to rally, and the darn beautiful sunshine made it really difficult to score.

Meanwhile, starter Garrett Mock was filthy, using his on-point breaking balls to notch strikeout after strikeout -- but wait, he was wasting too many pitches on a day when the Nationals needed Mock's help to rest the bullpen, and after it all ended, when asked about his nine strikeouts, he said, simply, "I'm not happy about it."

So on a day when even the few encouraging signs backfired, Washington left Miller Park for good with a 7-1 loss against Milwaukee, an undignified ending to a series in which the Nationals lost all four and were outscored 23-5.

Even on good days, Nationals victories often require that every little thing goes just right, that all the particulars align with unlikely permission. The Nationals need long innings from their starters, clutch hits from the middle of their order, clean work from the reliable members of their bullpen. They need the full lineup of variables. On Monday, yet again, Washington received no cooperation. Mock, making a spot start to help the team recover from Thursday's doubleheader against Colorado, failed to finish the fifth inning. The team's 1-2-3 hitters faltered after a bases-loaded, no-out chance in the fifth. The bullpen, already worn from Sunday's 13-inning game, threw 70 pitches and issued four more walks.

All that gloom, and it still couldn't eclipse the sunshine.

"It was kind of hard to see the ball here," catcher Wil Nieves said. The Brewers "are used to it, but this was the first time I've played here in a day game. At night, you can see better. But day games? The umpire was telling me this was the worst place for day games, just because of the shadows. But, it was just a little bit hard. Their pitcher today, he was throwing fastballs right by us, and they were, like, 85 or 86" mph.

The Nationals had started the day hoping that Mock, excused from the bullpen for his first start (at any level) since July 21, could last just long enough to save the exhausted relievers. In pregame meetings, nobody told Mock as much. But he knew. His job was simple: Ideally, he needed to stretch his day -- capped at roughly 100 pitches -- into the sixth or seventh inning.

Mock ran into a weird web of trouble. Struggling to locate his fastball, Mock instead turned to his slider and curve. Few Brewers could hit it. He struck out two in the second, two more in the third. In the fourth, after Corey Hart smashed a down-the-middle fastball for a two-run homer, Mock ended the inning with three more strikeouts. All told, he had nine in just 4 2/3 innings. But the two home runs he issued did him in. Entering Monday, this season had produced 175 games in which pitchers notched nine or more strikeouts in a game; only one (Cincinnati's Aaron Harang, May 25) pitched fewer than five innings.

"I really wouldn't say that I pitched great today," he said. "I didn't get a ground ball out, and that's what my strength is; that's what my strength has been the entire year. My job was to get past the fifth inning, at the very least, and I didn't do that. I would rather have nine ground balls and throw one-third of the pitches. A stat like that, at the end of my career, when I'm done playing, it might be cool to think about having a couple games where you strike guys out, but my job today was to get ground balls."

In the final innings, Washington allowed Milwaukee to build its lead. That bases-loaded chance in the fifth dissolved when Willie Harris squibbed into a force at home, Pete Orr struck out and Ryan Zimmerman grounded out to second. In the seventh, Washington put two men on base thanks to back-to-back Brewers errors, but then, Cristian Guzmán, pinch-hitting for Orr, grounded into a double play.

Washington's fourth straight loss further distanced the team from the hot start that began this eight-game road trip. In Colorado, the Nationals won three of four. But here, Manager Manny Acta said, "we just got swept by a better team. They flat-out outplayed us."

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