Nationals Strike Out in Milwaukee, Lose to Brewers

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 31, 2009

MILWAUKEE, July 30 -- On Thursday, Jim Riggleman got tossed from a baseball game without quite getting angry. This was an ejection, Riggleman-style: measured, even reasonable. There was no dirt-kicking, hat-removing, spittle-launching tirade. Heck, Riggleman argued without any certainty he was right. He argued because he thought his team needed an arguer.

The ejection, when it came, didn't surprise him. It simply meant that Riggleman would watch the bulk of Thursday's 7-3 loss to Milwaukee at Miller Park from the visiting manager's office, bearing witness to an afternoon where subsequent close plays cost Washington more than a lost argument. When this series ended, Riggleman took stock of the four games -- no errors, 30 runs, 23 runs against -- and concluded, "We're playing good baseball."

But he also knew this: The Nationals could have, and maybe should have, won this series. Instead, they split. In the finale, they struck out 13 times, managed only five hits (three from Nyjer Morgan), and handed Milwaukee its lead with two suspect fielding plays in the seventh. Close games, like close calls, can make for perilous business.

Riggleman's first ejection as interim manager -- he is on pace to overtake the placid Manny Acta in that category by, oh, Labor Day -- came in the third inning of a scoreless game. As Riggleman watched from the third base dugout, second baseman Anderson Hernández swung at a 1-2 breaking ball from Yovani Gallardo. The pitch was low and in the dirt. Riggleman thought he heard the sound of wood on hide. But he wasn't certain. Home plate umpire Joe West saw no foul tip, and ruled it a strikeout.

Riggleman walked from the dugout to discuss matters with West. Neither man in this debate was really new to the honored protocol. Riggleman was managing his 1,189th regular season game. West was umpiring his 4,000th. Riggleman asked West to get help on the call. West declined, and that was that. Or at least it should have been. Riggleman, still calm, walked from the batter's box toward third base umpire Paul Nauert. If West won't ask for help on the call, he thought, I'll do it myself.

He also knew the consequences.

Umpires with 4,000 games of justice don't like vigilante interim managers.

"If Joe wasn't going to ask the third base umpire -- if I have to take it upon myself to do that -- he's going to throw me out," Riggleman said. "But I just wanted to see if the third base umpire heard the ball-bat contact, and he wasn't going to answer that question unless Joe asked him to."

As a result, Riggleman was banished to the clubhouse, and from there, any displeasure had more to do with execution than umpiring.

The decisive sequence of Washington mistakes came in the bottom of the seventh. Starter J.D. Martin took the mound that inning trying to protect a 3-3 tie and finish an efficient outing. Through six, he'd thrown just 79 pitches. Milwaukee's only runs had scored on two pitches -- a Craig Counsell two-run homer in the third, a Prince Fielder solo shot in the fourth. But otherwise, Martin was working quickly and feeling comfortable. "I felt good out there," said Martin, who has walked only one batter in 12 big league innings.

Milwaukee started the seventh, though, with a Mike Cameron double and a Casey McGehee single, stacking runners on first and third.

Martin got a short talking-to from pitching coach Steve McCatty, then turned his attention to Jason Kendall.

The infield shifted in.

And Martin got just what he wanted: Kendall dribbled the ball to third, where Ryan Zimmerman charged, scooped, and sidearmed a throw home, well in time to nail the sliding Cameron at the plate. But catcher Wil Nieves had an Eiffel Tower pose atop the plate, and Cameron slid right under him, giving Milwaukee a 4-3 lead.

"By the time I felt it on my glove and went to tag, I just tagged him too high," Nieves said. "I should have blocked [the plate], and it's one of those plays. I just have to make sure it won't happen again."

By the end of the inning, Milwaukee led, 5-3, because of one other costly fielder's choice play. Right after the Kendall at-bat, Martin was yanked, replaced by Sean Burnett. After a sacrifice bunt and an intentional walk, the Brewers had the bases loaded for Counsell.

And Burnett, too, got just what he wanted: Counsell bounced a would-be double play to short, and there it was, 6-4- wait! Hernández, after taking an underhand toss from shortstop Alberto González, threw low and wide to first base, missing Nick Johnson. Counsell was safe. Milwaukee had a 5-3 lead, which it would expand in the eighth against Mike MacDougal.

"We had a chance to win all four ballgames," Riggleman said.

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