Nats Lose to Braves, Fall to 0-4

Atlanta's Yunel Escobar is welcomed home by Brian Mcann after hitting a three-run home run in the bottom of the third inning for the Braves.
Atlanta's Yunel Escobar is welcomed home by Brian Mcann after hitting a three-run home run in the bottom of the third inning for the Braves. (By John Amis -- Associated Press)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 11, 2009

ATLANTA, April 10 -- The game itself actually ended. There was a runner on, then a line drive: the magic formula. Only it was the Braves who orchestrated it. At 1:25 a.m., to end an exhaustive game that turned on countless little moments -- and was extended by a rain delay and extra innings -- Atlanta's Kelly Johnson buzzed a line drive to right. It dropped. Jordan Schafer, hurtling in from second base, crossed home plate. Washington Nationals pitcher Joe Beimel and his teammates slowly walked off the field.

The problem was, some things on Friday night didn't quite end. Like Washington's losing streak, now at four games. The 6-5 loss against Atlanta not only continued the Nationals' early-season swoon, but also heightened the team's regret: Indeed, on this night, they had plenty of opportunities to win. They came as close to a win as you can get without actually winning.

"We just have to realize it's a long season," said Beimel, the losing pitcher. "It probably won't be the last time we lose four in a row ... but I think we just have to bounce back, score some runs and pitch a little better than we have."

The Nationals left 16 runners on base and three separate times they had the bases loaded and one out and failed to score. In a final bases loaded circumstance, they managed only one run.

"This is one of those games you have one or two of a year," Adam Dunn said. "Tonight was one of those miserable games where if it ended on a positive note, it would have been worth it. But it didn't."

The Washington Nationals had opportunities in this game, and not just because a massive rainstorm flushed Atlanta ace Derek Lowe from the game after three-plus innings. And not just because of an admirable patchwork job from their own bullpen, which kept the game close. The Nationals, really, had opportunities because of their bats -- and those bats worked perfectly, time and time again, until the exact moment when they really needed to.

Base runners? Yeah, the Nationals managed that without problem. Producing with the bases loaded, though, turned out to be the issue.

Take the third inning, for instance. With the bases loaded and one out, Lowe struck out Nick Johnson and Elijah Dukes, the first of those with a full count.

Or take the fourth inning. With the bases loaded and one out, Cristian Guzman, facing Buddy Carlyle -- on for Lowe -- popped up to shallow left, freezing the runners. Then Ryan Zimmerman grounded to third, creating a force-out at second.

Or take the seventh inning. By that point, the Nationals had tied the game at 4 thanks to a succession of two-out hits one inning prior -- Guzman, Zimmerman and Adam Dunn each had RBIs -- and here, Washington had a golden chance to grab the lead. Again, the bases were loaded. Again, one out. Lastings Milledge worked a 3-1 count against Atlanta righty Jeff Bennett. But Milledge swung at the next pitch, a fastball through the heart of the plate. Milledge hit it hard, but on the ground -- right at third baseman Chipper Jones, who started a 5-4-3 double play. Atlanta, again, escaped the inning.

Then came the ninth. Maybe you could suggest Washington was simply lucky to score a run. But certainly the Nationals could have scored even more. Nick Johnson, starting off the ninth with Washington down 5-4, only got on via a double in the first place when Atlanta outfielder Matt Diaz couldn't get his glove on a sinking liner. Diaz came in, stuck his mitt out belt-high, and then watched with shock as the ball zipped right under the leather. But still, Johnson was almost stranded at third.

With the bases loaded and one out, Wil Nieves, pinch-hitting, struck out with the count full; he actually swung at ball four. Then Lastings Milledge came to the plate. On an 0-2 pitch, he pounded the ball back at the pitcher's mound. Gonzalez swung his arm around, trying to stab at the ball, and actually deflected it back toward the first base-side on-deck circle. That allowed Johnson to score.

By the time this game went to extra innings, the earlier stages of this game were a distant memory, dimmed by a 2:02 rain delay that began in the top of the fourth.

At 8:36 p.m., after roughly 20 minutes of steady rain, a downpour turned the sky white. The count was 3-2 on Willie Harris, top of the fourth. Play didn't resume until 2:02 later, and by then, the game had a decidedly different tenor. The game's two starters, Lowe and Shairon Martis, were out. The Nationals, already down 3-1, handed the deficit -- and six innings -- to the bullpen, the purported weakness of the club.

Already this year, the bullpen had shouldered a burden. In two of the first three games, Washington's starters had lasted just three innings. Here, Martis fell into the same trap -- though indeed, he would have continued his so-so outing were it not for the rain. Making his 2009 debut, Martis dared trouble in each inning, always allowing the lead-off man to reach. But in the first, that man was erased on a double play. Next time, he was stranded at second. Only in the third, when Yunel Escobar homered with two aboard, did Martis finally pay -- and, surrender Washington's early lead. Because of that Escobar homer, Atlanta took its 3-1 lead into the delay.

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