Nationals 7, Marlins 3

The thing was, it wasn't even close. When first base umpire Bill Miller pumped his fist and said the Nationals' Marlon Byrd had indeed swung at a 3-2 pitch to end the sixth inning, the Florida Marlins were already starting to jog off the field. That's how obvious the call appeared to be.

But with the Nationals leading in a game they would win, 7-3, Byrd would not leave the third strike alone. He stopped in his tracks, glared at Miller, then headed slowly to his position in left field. Somewhere something was said, whatever it was it was enough for Miller to eject Byrd from the game. Irate, Byrd raced back in to argue with Miller. As he did, the second base umpire Joe Brinkman jumped in the middle to intervene.

And here's where everything gets fuzzy. Because in a matter of moments Brinkman was flat on his back, the Nationals players were pushing Byrd back toward the dugout and the team that has overcome so much in the last few months might have to do without their left fielder who is hitting .317 for a protracted time. It all depends on what Major League Baseball thinks happened at RFK Stadium last night.

Brinkman said he stuck out his left hand to stop the onrushing Byrd.

Nationals second baseman Jamey Carroll said Brinkman tried to corral Byrd, wrapping his arms around the player only to tumble to the ground when doing so.

Washington Manager Frank Robinson said he saw none of it until he happened to look up and see Brinkman lying feet up and Byrd standing nearby and thought to himself, "Oh God."

Byrd said nothing. He stood in the clubhouse after the game, wearing a Manchester United shirt and repeated over and over, "I am only going to talk about the victory."

Compounding the confusion was a replay that was not available anywhere in the stadium and was said to be inconclusive by those who saw it away from the park.

Either way it overshadowed a marvelous relief outing from Sunny Kim, the last man in the Nationals' bullpen, who stepped in for starter Tomo Ohka with two men on and one out in the fourth with the game tied at 3. Kim struck out Marlins cleanup hitter Miguel Cabrera and got Juan Encarnacion to fly to right.

"It picked up all of us," Robinson said of Kim's performance.

Also lost was yet another key Nick Johnson hit, this one breaking the 3-3 tie in the fifth.

Here the Nationals are on the first weekend of June, just a half-game out of first with five wins in six games over the two top teams in the National League East. But all that was forgotten in an instant at the end of the sixth.

Baseball treats contact between players and umpires seriously. Suspensions in such cases run from five games like Atlanta Manager Bobby Cox and Mets Coach Cookie Rojas once received to the 30 games Pete Rose was assessed in 1988. A lot depends on what the umpire says and what any replays show.

"I saw Byrd running toward my partner Bill Miller and I thought I could get in front of him," Brinkman said through a pool reporter. "He was running pretty hard. Once I couldn't get in front of him, I put my arm out. He just hit my arm spun me around and flipped me."

Asked if he thought the hit was intentional, Brinkman deferred.

"I really don't know," the umpire replied. "He was just running and I was thinking I could just get in front of him so I don't know what the intent was."

After the game, Byrd was confronted by team president Tony Tavares who asked if had hit the umpire.

Byrd said he didn't know.

"I want to see that tape," Tavares replied.

Robinson was in no mood to talk about contingencies if Byrd should be suspended. Since he didn't see the incident he seemed uncomfortable talking about it. As the man who once handed out suspensions as the league's vice president of on-field operations, he would be the perfect one to ask.

But this time the player in question was one of his own. And with his team rising from the ashes of a ruined road trip of just a week ago, he was not in the mood to discuss something like this.

"I think the most important thing is us winning a ballgame," he said. "Not Marlon Byrd getting kicked out of the game. That's a sidebar."

Second base umpire Joe Brinkman is helped to his feet after coming in contact with Marlon Byrd, who was called out on strikes by Bill Miller.Second base umpire Joe Brinkman tries to stop Marlon Byrd, who was upset at first base umpire Bill Miller for saying Byrd went around on a check swing.