By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 30, 2009
MILWAUKEE, July 29 -- All year, the sixth inning has reliably tormented whatever Washington Nationals pitcher happens to be on the mound. A fairly simple theory explains this. In sixth innings, starters tend to wilt. The first line of relievers -- the weakest line -- tries to bridge the gap to the later innings. Sure, every team's infrastructure weakens in the middle innings, but the Nationals, all season, have employed several young pitchers who falter as the game gets old and a few too many relievers who falter almost on command.
The Nationals know this plotline, right down to its timing, all too well: The starter hits a wall. The manager emerges. The bullpen gates open. The lead disappears. The latest recurrence, in what became a 7-5 Washington loss against Milwaukee on Wednesday at Miller Park, only felt surprising given the short-term success of both the team with the sixth-inning lead and the reliever charged to hold it. The Nationals were eyeing a five-game winning streak, something they haven't achieved all season. They hoped Tyler Clippard, with a 1.15 ERA in July, could make it happen.
No such luck.
Starter Garrett Mock and Clippard combined to allow three runs in the decisive sixth, turning a lead into a deficit and a winning streak into a lost opportunity. Washington pitchers have allowed 92 runs in the sixth inning this year, more than they've allowed in any other frame. Project those sixth-inning numbers over a game, and you get an 8.20 ERA.
Mock "just hasn't gotten over that hurdle yet," interim manager Jim Riggleman said of his starter after the game. "I know he's a confident guy, but he just hasn't been able to finish the inning off or finish a hitter off at certain times. But it's in there. I think hitters will tell you that this guy is not a lot of fun to hit against, and I think the results will eventually show us that. But he's going through a little rough time getting those wins. Tonight he left with the win and we couldn't hold it for him."
Mock entered the sixth with a 5-3 lead, but lasted only two hitters. Corey Hart bounced a double down the third base line. Mike Cameron singled hard on the ground between shortstop and third, with Hart stopping at third.
With that, Mock, who has completed six innings only once in six career starts, was done. Riggleman took those slow steps from the dugout, and this was the fulcrum moment. With some tidy relief work, who would care that Mock was hit hard after Washington built a 4-0 lead, that he didn't record a 1-2-3 until the fifth? Who would remember that solo blast by Cameron in the fourth that drew the Brewers within one run? Who would bemoan the sequence in third, where Ryan Braun's alleged home run -- it trickled off the glove webbing of a leaping Nyjer Morgan and deflected against the yellow stripe atop the center field wall -- was overturned in an umpire review, and then all the good fortune was squandered as Braun scored from third on a wild pitch?
"That's the game of inches," Mock said. "I thought I made some pretty good pitches today."
Clippard, brought on in relief, had control of the game's direction. He did not have control of his pitches. It all looked good for a moment, as Clippard, on a 3-2 pitch, forced J.J. Hardy into a 5-4-3 double play. Sure, the play scored Hart from third, but nobody was on and two were out.
Problem was, Clippard kept throwing balls. He walked Mike Rivera, the No. 8 hitter. Then he fell behind pinch-hitter Casey McGehee 3-1. With the count full, Clippard delivered a middle-of-the-plate change-up. McGehee deposited it in the Milwaukee bullpen, barricaded behind the left-center wall. Milwaukee led, 6-5.
"Yeah, he beat me with my best pitch," Clippard said. "I should have never even gotten to that guy. Walking Rivera is what killed me."
The Brewers' lead was especially surprising given the form of their starting pitcher, Manny Parra. The lefty entered the day with 16 starts and a 6.42 ERA -- second-highest in baseball among those with 75 innings or more. And in the early part of this game, Parra didn't look nearly as good as his numbers. Seven of the first 11 Washington hitters reached base. The Nationals took a 1-0 lead in the first with a sequence of two-out work -- a Josh Willingham single, a Ryan Zimmerman walk, a Nick Johnson dart up the middle.
Parra's difficulties increased in the second, where he walked three, including Zimmerman and Johnson with the bases loaded. By inning's end, Miller Park was all boos, and Parra had already thrown 64 pitches. But he settled down thereafter, scattering four more hits, and giving up just one more run. He lasted six innings, long enough to pick up the win.
"We couldn't quite put him away," Riggleman said.