Brewers 4, Nationals 3
-- The moment was so confusing. For a split second, the runner looked to be picked off, a huge out in a tie game in the bottom of the 10th. But wait. Here was Paul Schrieber, the first base umpire, raising his arm, pointing to Mike Stanton, the left-hander making his first appearance as a Washington National.
The call: A balk. And just as Stanton raced toward Schrieber in a rage of protest, Chris Magruder sauntered home from third base, the winning run in the Milwaukee Brewers' 4-3 victory over the Nationals before 40,690 Friday night at Miller Park.
The call, and the ensuing loss, left the Nationals in a wicked combination of fuming and reeling. They have dropped four in a row, three by one run, and that karma they created winning 24 one-run games prior to the all-star break seems to have completely evaporated. They can't score runs, even when they begin the game with a homer, as they did Friday from Brad Wilkerson, one of 11 hits. And they have lost two straight starts from ace Livan Hernandez -- who carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth but allowed a two-out, game-tying homer to Carlos Lee -- for the first time all year.
All those other things went into this one, to be sure, and because of them all, the Nationals' lead over the Atlanta Braves in the National League East is just 11/2 games, their smallest advantage since June 18. But when the visitors clubhouse opened to reporters following the game, there was Nationals Manager Frank Robinson, standing in front of a video screen. He relayed what the umpires had told him, that Stanton had stepped toward the plate, yet thrown to first.
"Now, I want you to take a look at this," Robinson said.
He pointed to a screen, frozen on Stanton, in mid-pickoff move, striding toward first. The Nationals signed the veteran left-hander just Wednesday, and in the 10th, with runners on first and third, he made his first appearance for Washington. It was his 997th major league game. In 17 years, he had seven previous balk calls.
Moments later, in his office, Robinson ranted.
"How in the world do they think a guy as experienced as Mike Stanton is going to come into that situation and fool around with some kind of balk move?" Robinson bellowed.
Magruder, a pinch hitter, had opened the 10th with a double off Luis Ayala, and moved to third on a sacrifice. Ayala then intentionally walked Rickie Weeks, and Robinson brought in Stanton -- who, before being cut by the New York Yankees last month, had allowed left-handed hitters just a .176 batting average -- to face the left-handed hitting Lyle Overbay.
Yet Stanton is known for his pickoff move, and when he took to the rubber, he had in his mind that he would pick off Weeks, a rookie.
"That is my typical move," Stanton said.
Wilkerson, playing first for the Nationals, was on the receiving end of the throw.
"I've seen that move many times when [Stanton] was with the Mets and I was on first base," Wilkerson said. "He's got a quality move."
Wilkerson received the throw, tagged Weeks -- Wilkerson thought he had the second out -- and then moved toward the mound to see if he might be able to catch Magruder dancing off third. That's when Schrieber made the call. He told Stanton and Robinson, who charged onto the field to argue, that Stanton had stepped toward home plate but thrown to first, one of several ways a pitcher can balk. If a pitcher steps toward home, the rule states, he must throw to home.
"It was just real simple," Schrieber said. "I had his body going to the plate and throwing to first."
Asked whether Stanton's foot, or just his body, went toward home plate, Schrieber said, "Both."
Robinson vehemently disputed the call afterward, fuming in the clubhouse, challenging reporters to look at the video and call it a balk.
"The picture speaks for itself," Robinson said. "His foot is on the ground toward first base. He can't do anything else with that foot."
It all wasted a fine effort from Hernandez, an all-star who threw eight innings and allowed just two earned runs -- even after rolling an ankle in the first inning. His one error in a 136-pitch outing was to Lee in the eighth, a 1-2 slider that hung a bit too much, and Lee, who leads the National League in RBI, deposited it into the left-field seats.
"Just one mistake," catcher Brian Schneider said.
But lost in the furor over the balk call could be the Nationals' inability to get separation from an opponent. Newly acquired Preston Wilson hit an RBI double in the fifth for a 3-2 lead, but the Nationals had runners in scoring position in the seventh and eighth and failed to score, including when Wilson was thrown out to end the eighth by right fielder Geoff Jenkins.
"It's difficult under the circumstances," Robinson said. "We're battling for our lives here, and we haven't gotten started in the win column in the second half of the season, and we're in a ballgame that we're fighting for, and it was taken away from us. We weren't given a chance to compete in the 10th inning."