Here came Luis Ayala one more time, the bullpen door flapping shut behind him, and he climbed the mound as he has done 47 other times this year and began firing fastballs into a late-afternoon haze. So often he's had to do this for the Washington Nationals, champions of the one-run game, that eventually there were going to be hits.
And with those hits there were going to be runs.
Yesterday it was Carlos Beltran with a bloop double to left and Mike Piazza with a single to right center in the 11th that gave Ayala his fourth defeat, a 3-2 loss to the New York Mets. Ayala shrugged.
"That's baseball," he said.
Still, with trade rumors swirling and Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden promising to be a factor in any mid-season dealing, Washington's greatest strength might loom as its most pressing need. If this team is going to win every game 2-1 and 3-2, does it need one more relief pitcher?
Ayala, who has been as consistent as any reliever in the league this year, has now lost a game and blown a save in his last two appearances. This, of course, could simply be an unfortunate coincidence or it could be the beginnings of a trend. Either way it shows how thin the margin of error is for this team ranked last in the league in runs scored yet second in victories.
And this is what can happen when the Nationals have to rely solely on their bullpen to get them through. While on some teams the relievers can hold an opponent to one or two runs, Washington's relievers have to be almost perfect. In this last stretch where they have lost three of four to the Mets, they have been something just short of perfect. And it has cost them.
Ayala said after the game that he is not tired. His manager, Frank Robinson, brushed away the question by saying he had been able to give Ayala a break on Tuesday and Wednesday. But Ayala's two days off were followed yesterday by a game in which he had to go two innings because the Nationals were in extra innings tied 2-2.
Eventually the bulk of innings can take a toll. Ayala has a history of pitching better after the all-star break than he has before it, but he is also on a pace to pitch in more than 90 games , which would be the most in his career.
"I like throwing every day," he said. "I pitch every game. Today I felt good because I had a couple of days off."
He has complained of minor soreness in his pitching shoulder. In Chicago over the weekend he asked for a day of rest and there will probably have to be more such days if this pace of one-run games continues.
"It's a little sore today but not much," he said. "My arm is good. I can pitch a few days in a row and be fine."
Still, the Nationals have two blown saves and a bullpen defeat in the last week, which is significant for a team that is 46-1 when leading after eight innings and 35-3 when leading after six.
The Nationals have inquired about the availability of Seattle closer Eddie Guardado to be a setup man. But the bidding for Guardado might be going up. According to reports in Boston, the Red Sox have made similar inquiries.
If it is unable to find someone like Guardado, Washington will have to rely on Ayala, Chad Cordero, Gary Majewski and Hector Carrasco, who have already combined to throw more than 127 innings this year.