Braves tag Nats with shutout loss in series finale

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The play was so close that most who watched it unfold had no idea whether Marcus Giles was out or safe at the plate.

The Atlanta Braves second baseman, trying to score on teammate Edgar Renteria’s single to left, got his front leg in before Washington Nationals catcher Brian Schneider could tag his back leg. But did Giles actually touch the plate, or was that front leg raised above the ground?

Television replays were inconclusive, though the key figures in the Nationals’ clubhouse following yesterday’s 5-0 loss were convinced umpire Ed Rapuano incorrectly called Giles safe on the bang-bang play in the fifth inning.

“We all saw the replay,” Schneider said. “When you can slow it down and take it frame-by-frame, it’s a lot different. … When you look at the replay, his front leg never comes down and I get his back leg.”

Maybe so, but as Giles put it: “The point is, the umpire called me safe. So I was safe.”

No arguing that one, and there wasn’t much the Nationals could do about it, other than feel sorry for themselves following a mostly lackluster loss before 29,007 at RFK Stadium.

The near-miss at the plate kind of epitomized the ballgame. Washington found itself on the short end of several critical plays, which when added up accounted for a five-run loss.

“We couldn’t get anything going today,” said right fielder Austin Kearns, one of only four Nationals to get a hit. “We didn’t get any breaks and never really had any chances.”

Just the opposite of the previous night, when Washington’s hitters battered around Atlanta ace John Smoltz in a 9-6 victory. They would have seemed to have an easier task yesterday facing fill-in starter Oscar Villarreal — a career reliever making his first start of the season — but it didn’t play out that way.

Villarreal (9-1) cruised through the Nationals lineup over five innings, surrendering just one hit and walking one batter without allowing a man past first base.

And when the right-hander departed after 65 pitches, a trio of Braves relievers (Chad Paronto, Danys Baez and Bob Wickman) combined to finish off the shutout and give Atlanta a split of the four-game series.

“You can’t explain it,” manager Frank Robinson said. “We hit some balls decent early in the game right at them and not much else. … It doesn’t have to be a reason for that. It happens. The pitchers got us out today.”

Washington’s hurlers weren’t quite as fortunate. Jason Bergmann, like Villarreal a reliever-turned-starter, wasn’t awful in his third career start (four runs in six innings) but made a couple of costly mistakes that ultimately prevented him from keeping the game close.

“I’m feeling very comfortable,” said Bergmann, who was converted to a starter last month at Class AAA New Orleans. “I’d like to cut down on some things, but I have time to work on it now.”

Bergmann (0-1) served up a second-inning solo homer to Brian McCann, putting the Braves on top 1-0. His bigger mistakes came during a three-run fifth inning, when he gave up a double to Matt Diaz, walked No. 8 hitter Ryan Langerhans and then surrendered back-to-back RBI singles to Giles and Renteria.

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