By Bill Oram
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
As the Nationals have steadily shown improvement in the last month, questions slowly have been resolved. Last week they locked up a permanent general manager and signed their No. 1 draft pick. More broadly, they've learned that Adam Dunn can be an effective first baseman, that their young pitchers -- if given time to mature -- may be able to consistently perform at the major league level, and that veteran sluggers like Ryan Zimmerman and Dunn can be anchors for what has been of late a potent offense.
But Washington, which continues to sport the worst record in baseball, remains stymied as to how to stop the opposing team from exploding for a big inning. On Monday it came in the sixth, when the Milwaukee Brewers batted through their lineup, scoring six times, turning a slim lead into a deficit that, for the Nationals, might as well have been as big as the Grand Canyon. The inning keyed the Brewers' 7-1 win over Washington before an announced crowd of 17,805 in a game that started at 4:35 p.m.
Three Nationals pitchers trotted out in the sixth, and none of them could tame the bats of the Brewers, who didn't make an out until the ninth batter of the inning, Felipe López, hit into a fielder's choice. The Brewers improved to 61-63 and remain mired in the middle of the crowded NL Central.
The Nationals (44-81) had received a promising start from Collin Balester, who in his last start against Cincinnati lasted just an inning and a third. Against the Brewers he crafted five scoreless innings, in which he struck out a career-best six and gave up just two hits. But in the sixth, he gave up four consecutive hits, including a double to Frank Catalanotto and Ryan Braun's 27th homer of the season, a two-run shot that set the tone for the rest of the inning and helped saddle Balester (1-4) with the loss.
"I just kind of lost the rhythm of the game a little bit but should have just stepped back and kind of recouped," Balester said. "By that point I was out of the game."
Balester was replaced by Jason Bergmann, who faced just two batters before giving way to Ron Villone, who allowed up a base hit to pinch hitter Jody Gerut before settling in and forcing López to hit into the fielder's choice and striking out Catalanotto and Braun.
"That's a good lineup," Nationals interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "[Balester] did a great job for five innings, as good as you could pitch that lineup for five innings, and just wasn't the same guy out there in the sixth."
If the Nationals opt to lift the bandage and revisit the damage of the sixth inning they will see a string of hits that might seem endless but actually stopped at six. The deluge was not perpetuated by the Nationals; there were no errors or cover-your-eyes moments. Instead, it was just a steady stream of productivity by Milwaukee.
The Nationals eked out four hits against Yovani Gallardo, managing one run that came in the second inning. Willie Harris scored on a fielder's choice after leading off the inning with a looping double to center. Harris was the lone Nationals player with multiple hits, going 2 for 3; both hits came off of Gallardo.
"He kept us off balance," Harris said. "He was mixing in his off-speed pitches pretty well. You tip your hat to the guy, he pitched well when he needed to."
Gallardo (12-10) slammed the door after that, preventing the Nationals from piecing together any more runs.
"His stuff is so good, on a bad day like he had today he still could find a way to get out of trouble," Riggleman said. "He made some great pitches to get out of trouble."
In his efficient five-inning appearance, Gallardo struck out eight, notably keeping Zimmerman and Dunn at bay. Both hit home runs a day earlier, but on Monday went hitless in a combined six at-bats.