This latest setback, 1-0 to the San Francisco Giants, so easily could have been a high point of the season for a Nationals club that has experienced so many lows. Tim Redding tossed his first complete game, allowing only Dave Roberts' RBI single in the eighth. His teammates stood poised to rally in the ninth, putting men on second and third with one out and their Nos. 3 and 4 hitters coming to the plate.
And still Washington couldn't find a way to win. Giants right-hander Matt Cain coaxed shallow fly balls out of Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns, the tying run was left stranded at third and Redding was denied victory despite perhaps the best pitching performance of his career.
"Definitely a tough loss," center fielder Willie Harris said. "Redding pitched well enough to get three wins today."
Of course, a team has to be capable of scoring at least one run to give its starter a victory, something the Nationals couldn't do Thursday on a gorgeous afternoon along San Francisco Bay. Cain countered Redding's eight innings of one-run ball with a four-hit shutout, issuing no walks and coming up huge with the game on the line in the ninth.
After allowing an infield single by Harris and a one-out double by Cristian Guzman, Cain appeared on the verge of cracking. Manager Bruce Bochy walked to the mound to see whether his 23-year-old hurler had anything left. When Cain said he did, Bochy retreated to the dugout, content to let him try his luck with Zimmerman and Kearns.
"I pretty much made up my mind if he was fine, which he said he was," Bochy said. "That is his game."
With the tying run on third, Zimmerman merely was looking to get the ball out of the infield. He accomplished that to a degree, but his fly ball to right traveled perhaps only 200 feet, far from enough to ensure the sacrifice fly.
Harris did break from third, but only to test Randy Winn's arm. He quickly slammed on the brakes and went back to third as the crowd of 36,963 roared.
"It was one of those situations where I was going to continue to go if it was a high throw, or off-line or something like that," Harris said. "But I didn't have any intentions of trying to score right there."
Said Zimmerman: "He gave me a pitch to do the job with. I just didn't hit it deep enough."
Neither did Kearns. After working the count full, Washington's cleanup man lofted a routine fly ball to right that ended the game in an even two hours.
"We battled," manager Manny Acta said. "We had our best guys up at the plate, and Cain just got the best of them."
Until that aborted ninth-inning rally, the Nationals had managed all of two hits off Cain, one of them a single by Redding - further evidence of the 30-year-old right-hander practically going at it alone in this game.
Redding had never pitched more than 7 1/3 innings in any of his previous 115 big league starts, but he seemed destined to go the distance from the moment he took the mound Thursday. He needed only 97 pitches to get there, and though he scattered seven hits, he didn't walk a batter and shook off catcher Johnny Estrada once.
"I felt like I could throw whatever Johnny called," he said.
Alas, it still wasn't enough on this afternoon. Despite recording the Nationals' second complete game of the year, Redding suffered a loss, just as teammate Jason Bergmann did May 31 at Arizona.
Then again, no one on this pitching staff enjoyed success this season against the Giants, who swept the yearlong series. San Francisco has gone 7-0 against Washington, 35-58 against everyone else.
All the Nationals could do was shake their heads in disbelief.
"That's baseball," Acta said. "I think we're leading the series against the Atlanta Braves, and then the Giants are in [fourth] place in the West and they sweep us. That's the way baseball goes."