One Game-Changing Play Alters Nats' Fate

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 17, 2008

Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

He stepped forward when he should have stepped back. Lastings Milledge knew it. He made a mistake, easy to admit.

"I didn't make the play," the center fielder later said, speaking in short bursts, curt but clear. "I should have made the play. Didn't make it. So . . . "

His voice trailed off.

At least on his end, there was nothing else to say. The ball he misjudged in the fifth inning -- a buckshot-hard liner hit by Colorado's Matt Holliday -- could have ended an inning and preserved a Washington win. Instead, it soared above his head, inviting a three-run Colorado outburst and eventually a 4-3 Washington loss Friday night at Nationals Park.

With one fielding misplay, a gaffe that altered the game at its exact midpoint, Washington lost its eighth consecutive game -- a stretch that, in every sense but the literal, has forced a drastic step back and precious few steps forward.

"Well, it's just a play that got away from me," said Milledge, who was not charged with an error on the play. "The ball was hit pretty good. You know, the hardest ball to judge is the one that's right at you and the one that's waist-level. You either have to break back or break forward. I chose to break forward.

"The play is over. It's over with. Done. We lost the game."

And with that, responsibility accepted, Milledge zippered his backpack and left the ballpark.

Then Tim Redding, Washington's losing starter, took his turn in front of a few microphones.

And there, more buckshots fired.

"Just one play changes the game," said Redding, who allowed four runs, all earned, and seven hits in six innings. "It's one of those situations where we should have won this game, 3-1. The second home run to [Brad] Hawpe should never have happened. I thought the team played well today."

Redding was then asked directly if he thought Milledge should have caught the fifth-inning liner.

"Not commenting, next question," Redding said. "I made my point. I think we should have won the game."

From any vantage point, that fifth inning doubled as the game's fulcrum. Two outs into that inning, Redding had been zipping along. He had a 3-1 lead. He had his velocity, his rhythm, everything he'd lacked in his previous three outings.

But then Rockies center fielder Scott Smith interrupted with a single. The next batter, Holliday, stepped in with modest success (4 for 14 lifetime) against Redding. But treated to a down-the-middle fastball, Holliday lashed a liner toward center. The ball sizzled toward Milledge, staying up, staying up. And then -- oops, it sneaked just a foot over his head. Smith scored. Redding started off the next hitter, Hawpe, with three consecutive balls. On a 3-1 count, Hawpe smashed another Redding fastball just over the center field fence.

Colorado had a 4-3 lead.

Washington had a deficit it couldn't cut.

Typical of the losing streak, the Nationals missed their best chances. Emilio Bonifacio, who struck out four times, saved one of those for when the bases were loaded with two outs, another for when two were on with two outs. In the ninth, Colorado closer Brian Fuentes iced the outcome with a strikeout, a strikeout and, yes, another strikeout -- again, Bonifacio.

Said Redding, after it was done: "The most frustrating is when you know the inning should have been over and you give up runs to guys who shouldn't have been at the plate. Like I said, it's just one of those situations where I thought we played a real good game as a team; it's just unfortunate that one play changed the whole outcome in a one-run ballgame."

Nationals Note: The Dodgers won a waiver claim on Thursday for Nationals second baseman Ronnie Belliard, opening the window for the teams to consummate a trade -- though no deal appears imminent.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the Dodgers put in a claim for Belliard only to block a trade to the Arizona Diamondbacks, who recently lost second baseman Orlando Hudson for the season. After a player is claimed on waivers, the two involved teams have 48 hours to complete a deal.

Belliard, who knows of the potential for a trade, and was hearing jokes about "Dodger Blue" from teammates, and said yesterday that "I want to stay here." Belliard started at shortstop Friday night in place of Cristian Guzmán, still battling a thumb injury.

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