- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2008

It’s hard to pinpoint when yesterday’s game went from looking like a satisfying end to the Washington Nationals’ seven-game homestand to a puzzling loss.

Maybe it was the fifth inning, when Jason Bergmann failed to lay down a one-out bunt and move Jesus Flores into scoring position for what could have been the team’s third run and when Aaron Boone popped up with the bases loaded. Or maybe it was the eighth, when the Milwaukee Brewers took their first lead and finished a two-inning stretch in which they scored three runs with as many walks and stolen bases as base hits.

Manager Manny Acta had his own choice, nominating a Cristian Guzman single that could have brought home one run or more had Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks not kept it in the infield.

Whatever it was, yesterday’s 11-inning, 4-3 loss to the Brewers played out like the flip side to Washington’s 7-6 win Sunday. These kinds of games turn on little pivot points. But there’s one recurring lesson from yesterday’s loss: With a few more hits, the what-if game doesn’t get played.

The Nationals wasted another strong outing from a rejuvenated Bergmann, getting one hit off Milwaukee’s bullpen in the last five innings after taking a 2-0 lead on Brewers ace Ben Sheets. Six of their last nine batters went down on strikeouts while third baseman Ryan Zimmerman sat on the bench, unavailable because of doctor’s orders to rest a sore shoulder.

In a homestand in which the Nationals held opponents to fewer than five runs four times, they went 3-4.

“We’re still not where we want to be,” manager Manny Acta said of the offense. “I’m not going to come out here and jump around and say I’m pleased with what I’m seeing when we’re last [in the National League] in batting average.”

Bergmann continued to look like a different pitcher than the one who went down to the minor leagues in the wake of back-to-back shellings in April. He pitched 5 2/3 shutout innings, extending his scoreless streak to 19 2/3 innings since he was recalled from Class AAA Columbus on May 13. He allowed only four hits and a walk.

If Bergmann’s outing had a flaw, it was that the eight batters he struck out helped run his pitch count up to 93 by the middle of the sixth inning, when he was removed for Charlie Manning.

“I would have liked to face [Prince] Fielder. I would have liked to throw more. I don’t like pitch counts and stuff,” Bergmann said. “But Manny is the manager. We had a lefty warming up. Prince is one of the best hitters in the game. The manager’s entitled to that decision.”

But after retiring Fielder in a lefty-vs.-lefty matchup to end the sixth inning, Manning gave up a leadoff single to Corey Hart in the seventh, who stole second and advanced to third on a wild pitch. Later in the inning, Brian Sanches walked J.J. Hardy, gave up a run-scoring single to Jason Kendall and was tagged for a unearned run when pinch hitter Joe Dillon took a half-swing and punched a ball to first base that Dmitri Young couldn’t handle.

That tied the game, and Milwaukee scored another run without getting a hit off Joel Hanrahan in the eighth. He issued a leadoff walk to Mike Cameron, who stole second and scored on Fielder’s sacrifice fly.

Even then, Washington wasn’t dead. Young’s eighth-inning triple was changed to a game-tying homer after a rare trip out of the dugout by Acta to convince home plate umpire Jerry Meals that the ball had cleared the center-field fence before bouncing back.

That break was the last one the Nationals would get - or make for themselves.

Fielder led off the 11th with a double and scored three batters later on Gabe Kapler’s single.

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