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Nats Fall to Braves, Drop to 0-6 on Season

Atlanta Braves' Jair Jurrjens, of Venezuela, pitches against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, April 12, 2009, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)
Atlanta Braves' Jair Jurrjens, of Venezuela, pitches against the Washington Nationals during the first inning of a baseball game, Sunday, April 12, 2009, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis) (John Amis - AP)

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 13, 2009

ATLANTA, April 12 -- Go back, look for that big-bang moment: a home run, a turning point. You won't find one. Look for any moment that explains everything -- a moment when all chances of winning dissolved -- and you won't find that either. On Sunday, the Washington Nationals lost a baseball game the way a balloon loses helium -- so gradually, that you barely noticed how it happened. And when the game ended, almost everybody in baseball's last winless clubhouse could think of one little thing that maybe he did wrong.

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And those little things weighed as heavily as their losing streak.

No longer are the Nationals playing avert-your-eyes baseball. Those blowouts from earlier in the season have been replaced by games like Sunday's -- an 8-5 decision against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field, where diagnosing the cause requires a heavy zoom lens. You could pick any spot, of course, and pick up the clues. Austin Kearns twice grounded into double plays with men on base, and later, in right field, he lost a ball in the sun. The Nationals left 11 on base, giving them 32 in this three-game series. Pitcher Scott Olsen, dazzling through three innings, allowed all five of his runs with two outs. One of those RBI hits, a triple that Jeff Francoeur pin-balled into the right field corner, left Olsen shaking his head.

"When things aren't going your way, that ball stays fair," he said. "When things are going your way, that ball goes foul."

Sometimes, little things alone cannot end a losing streak. They come once the big things start working. That's why, before Sunday's game, Manager Manny Acta asked for one of two solutions to break the skid. He wanted either a shutout or an offensive explosion.

He got neither.

He got a close game.

He got the exact scenario that exposed the heavy cost of minor mistakes.

He got a seventh inning in which a close game became a not-as-close game, thanks to a 3-1 fastball, a passed ball, and a roller under the shortstop's glove. The Nationals entered the bottom of the seventh down just 5-4 with Steven Shell on the mound. They had reason to like their chances, too. If Shell could maintain the score, the Nationals' offense could take a few stabs at Atlanta's underbelly -- a bullpen with a 7.71 ERA. Shell started the inning with a flyout, his fourth consecutive batter retired, and then served up a double to Omar Infante.

The next sequence created the domino effect that turned a 5-4 game into a 7-4 game.

With the count 2-1 on the next hitter, Yunel Escobar, Shell threw a curveball, painted on the outside corner. Home plate umpire Eric Cooper looked at it, didn't like it.

"I mean, I'm a young guy; for me to get those kind of calls, sometimes you get them, sometimes you don't," Shell said. "If I get the call there, it might make a difference in the at-bat."

The count slid to 3-1. Shell tried to get away with an outside fastball; Escobar bounced a double against the right-center fence, driving in a run and setting up everything thereafter. Saúl Rivera replaced Shell. His first pitch to Chipper Jones, was a soft change that catcher Josh Bard couldn't hold, and it bounded away from him. That passed ball advanced Escobar to third, prompting Acta to play the infield in. That explained shortstop Cristian Guzmán's slow reaction to a grounder hit by Jones -- normally an easy out, but this time an RBI single.

Suddenly, the Braves had a 7-4 lead.

"We're not playing good baseball right now," Bard said later. "Each guy has to take some responsibility on himself, myself included, and we have to start shoring stuff up. Because this isn't going to get it done."

As the Nationals packed their bags, cleaning up the last signs of a dismal six-game road trip, some players talked about the benefit of returning home. Some talked about the need to forget about the first two series, and start anew Monday. Some, though, were still letting their minds play back the latest outcome, and how it might have been different.

"I felt like, I don't know, you take a little thing like that -- say I get that call, I get even in the count, I get that guy out, and then there's nobody on base," Shell said. "I get the next guy, and we still might be playing. So -- I didn't really do my job today. That's really what it comes down to. I did my job for four batters, and I needed to do it for six."


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