- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 12, 2008

MILWAUKEE | There’s a reason Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta doesn’t get too excited after his team shows a brief sign of resurgence, even though fans, media members and even players might. It’s because he knows a baseball season ultimately isn’t prone to undulations in a club’s performance and that brief hot streaks, however much fun they are, don’t truly indicate how good a team is.

The Nationals’ eight-game road trip was proof of that. It began with plenty of optimism after the Nationals won three out of four games against the Rockies, but during a four-game sweep in Milwaukee — including a 7-1 loss Monday — it ended with a handful of problems.

Ultimately, Washington finished it winning three out of eight games. That’s a .375 winning percentage, or about where the Nationals are for the year. After Monday’s loss, it’s as clear as ever signs of progress can disappear quickly with baseball’s youngest team.

“This is baseball, and it’s 162 games. When you have 162 games, you have highs and lows, regardless of how good your club is. You can’t be jumping around when you win three,” Acta said. “We had a great first half [to the trip], but we got swept by a better team.”

Chief among the issues are the bullpen’s 18 walked batters in the last eight games, but others cropped up over the course of four days in Milwaukee.

The Nationals scored five runs in four games, including one against Milwaukee’s Dave Bush on Monday. The right-hander took advantage of a piecemeal Washington lineup that, despite displaying more patience at the plate than it had most of the weekend, still managed just six hits.

A first-inning run gave Washington a 1-0 lead, but the Nationals’ only other threat came and went when the team loaded the bases with none out in the fifth, only to end the inning with three runners still aboard.

That wasn’t enough to make a serious run at a Brewers team in hot pursuit of its first playoff appearance in 26 years, not when Garrett Mock’s otherwise serviceable spot start was overshadowed by a number of untimely mistakes.

His biggest ones came early in the game, including on the first batter Mock faced. He threw nothing but fastballs in a five-pitch at-bat against Rickie Weeks, and the second baseman hit a 3-1 pitch over the center-field fence for a leadoff homer.

Having walked Prince Fielder to start the fourth, Mock left a 1-0 pitch over the middle of the plate against Corey Hart and paid for it when Hart hit a two-run homer to left that gave Milwaukee a 3-1 lead.

Mock struck out nine in 4 2/3 innings, but he ran his pitch count up and was taken out after throwing 102 pitches part of the way through the fifth.

“I’d rather have nine ground ball outs and a third of the pitches,” Mock said. “At the end of my career, it might be cool, but my job was to get ground balls, and I didn’t do that.”

Milwaukee’s Gabe Kapler drew a leadoff walk against him in the fifth, getting all the way to third solely based on Mock’s struggles hitting a target of one type or another. First, Mock committed a throwing error trying to pick Kapler off at first. With Kapler at second, he threw a wild pitch that moved the runner to third.

When Mock finally came with a pitch over the plate, Fielder hit it to center field for a double that drove in Kapler and gave Milwaukee a 4-1 lead. After Hart reached on an infield single, Mock was done for the day.

When Mock handed the game over to a Nationals bullpen again issuing walks in bulk shipments, the Nationals were out of luck.

Charlie Manning, who walked two in a loss to Colorado last week and three in Saturday’s defeat, was again the chief culprit. He gave up two runs on three hits among the first five batters of the inning but then walked the Brewers’ seventh, eighth and ninth hitters to bring in another run.

“I think my mechanics have been off the last couple series,” Manning said. “Everything’s been just missing out of the zone.”

It wasn’t the only instance of a close miss this week. What could have been an impressive road trip turned into a so-so road trip because, in the end, this is a team that’s still a ways off from winning consistently.

“All those games, we were close,” Manning said. “If the bullpen could have held them down, we’d have had a better chance. Especially today, they have a three-run lead, and they come back with three more. That’s tough.”

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