By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; D01
MILWAUKEE -- The cell phone alarm would not stop ringing in the Washington Nationals clubhouse late Saturday, one of few sounds that pierced the silence, a final annoyance to cap a maddening night. "Someone shut that phone off," one player grumbled. Jim Riggleman and Mike Rizzo spoke in the manager's office, trying to figure who would relieve Sunday. Everyone figured out how to swallow a brutal loss.
Saturday night, the Washington Nationals lost their starting pitcher in the third inning, used every player on their bench, were granted their first run one inning after they actually scored it and needed six pitchers, four of whom spent part of the year at Class AAA Syracuse and one of whom spent Friday there.
Nothing came easy for the Nationals, and they saved the hardest part for last in their 4-3, walk-off loss to the Milwaukee Brewers before 41,987 at Miller Park. After the Nationals tied the score with a desperate rally in the top of the ninth, they lost in the bottom of the ninth when Drew Storen surrendered a game-winning, one-out single to Ryan Braun.
Circumstances forced the Nationals to piece together a pitching lineup and a batting order with scotch tape. Starter J.D. Martin left after recording seven outs with a back injury and afterward was placed on the 15-day disabled list. The Nationals' offense could not reinforce 5 2/3 solid innings by their overtaxed bullpen. Once their dormant offense finally struck, the Brewers ended the game and dropped the Nationals to 1-49 after trailing following the eighth inning.
"It had the feel to it like they were blowing us out," Riggleman said. "But we hung in there. We really could have won the ballgame."
Instead, they watched it slip through their fingers. The game-winning rally began when Storen allowed a one-out single to Rickie Weeks. "Just hung an 0-2 breaking ball," Storen said. He walked Joe Inglett, bringing up Braun, who had already hit a home run in the first inning. Braun lasered a line drive off the left field fence, over Josh Willingham's head, a punch straight to the gut.
"You just really learn there's no margin for error in that situation," Storen said. "I didn't feel overwhelmed. I thought I had good stuff. It's obviously a disappointing result, but I learned a lot from it."
With the Nationals down 3-2, Ryan Zimmerman led off the ninth with a single off Brewers closer John Axford, and Willingham followed with another. Riggleman had Adam Dunn, given a scheduled day off, at his disposal on the bench. "I was going to get Dunn to the plate at some point," Riggleman said.
But when? Well, Riggleman knew if Zimmerman and Willingham had made outs, Dunn would have hit third in the inning, pinch-hitting for Michael Morse. Once they both reached, Riggleman toyed with using Dunn then, letting him take a shot at a three-run home run.
Or, as he ultimately decided, he could use Nyjer Morgan to sacrifice bunt. (Afterward, Morse said he understood and supported the decision.) Morgan did better than sacrifice, deadening a perfect bunt toward third. He cruised into first, loading the bases with no outs.
Now, Dunn could be deployed, hitting for Iván Rodríguez. Dunn delivered a fly ball to center, deep enough for Zimmerman to beat Carlos Gomez's throw by an eyelash. The Nationals had tied it up.
With the pitcher's spot coming up, Riggleman had to pinch-hit with Wil Nieves, his lightest-hitting position player. Nieves flared to shallow right. Inglett sprinted in, and Willingham retreated to the base.
"I was yelling, 'Tag! Tag! Tag!' " third base coach Pat Listach said. "I probably should have been yelling, 'Go! Go! Go!' "
Willingham only bluffed. He held even as Inglett's running throw sailed halfway up the third base line. Alberto González grounded out, ending the inning and leaving the go-ahead run 90 feet away.
"I would have gone if I had to do it again," Willingham said. "That's pretty much all I can say."
The rally that came up just short arrived some six innings after the Nationals lost their starter. Martin left in the bottom of the third after he aggravated an ailment from late April, or something similar to it. Earlier this season, Martin missed two starts for Class AAA Syracuse with lower back spasms. The diagnosis after Saturday was that Martin's bulging discs had flared.
With two outs in the second inning, after a pitch to catcher Jonathan Lucroy, Martin's right knee buckled upon landing at the end of his delivery. Riggleman, pitching coach Steve McCatty and trainer Lee Kuntz visited the mound. "I'm okay," Martin told them. "This is something I've been through." After throwing a few pitches, they allowed him to stay in the game.
Martin walked opposing pitcher Manny Parra, an uncommon bugaboo for Martin, who had walked eight batters in 45 2/3 innings this season. Parra's walk loaded the bases, but Martin remained in the game and induced an inning-ending popup by Weeks.
After batting (and striking out) in the third inning, Martin allowed a leadoff triple to Joe Inglett and got a weak grounder to first by Braun. Martin intentionally walked Prince Fielder, and then Riggleman walked to the mound and pulled Martin for Collin Balester, who had been called up in the afternoon.
"I just didn't want to take any more chances with it," Riggleman said. Afterward, the Nationals placed Martin on the 15-day disabled list with a bulging disc in his lower back.
To score their first run, the Nationals required a three-act performance.
-- The play: With one in the fifth, Willingham at third and Morse at first, Ian Desmond smoked a line drive to right-center. Jim Edmonds made an acrobatic, diving snow-cone catch. Willingham tagged and Morse, mistakenly assuming Edmonds had dropped the ball, bolted around the bases. "I just made a mistake," Morse said. "I thought there was no way he was going to get. I should have kept my head up." Willingham trotted home and touched the plate before Edmonds's throw and a relay reached Fielder at first base.
-- The ruling: Home plate umpire Vic Carapazza emphatically pointed to the plate, signaling the run should count. The scoreboard operator misinterpreted either Carapazza or Rule 4.09, which includes an example identical to the play in question and declares the run counts because it was not a force play at first; all that matters is what happened first, the run scoring or the third out. For an inning, the Nationals' run total under the fifth inning stayed barren and everyone assumed the Brewers led, 2-0.
-- The correction: Official scorer Tim O'Driscoll pulled out his rule book, realized the mistake and alerted the right people. Before the start of the sixth inning -- voila! -- the Nationals had their run and trialed, 2-1.
In the sixth, the Nationals mounted their best rally of the game to that point. González led off with a bloop single to center, and Adam Kennedy followed with a line-drive single. After a fielder's choice, Roger Bernadina launched a sacrifice fly to left to score González and tie the game. The Nationals loaded the bases, but Morse, who had been four for his last five with two homers, struck out swinging.
The Nationals wouldn't have a better chance until the ninth. They finally capitalized. And that, in the end, only made it tougher.