- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 25, 2011

MILWAUKEE — While the Washington Nationals have gone about losing six of their first seven games on this road trip, they’ve done it with a lack of timely hitting, wasted starting pitching and overall offensive ineffectiveness.

But Tuesday night’s 7-6 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers featured none of that. The Nationals got the big hits, they supported their starter — who performed well enough to warrant a win — and they built a three-run lead to hand over to a bullpen that generally has been sensational.

In the end, watching their relievers surrender four runs in the seventh and eighth innings was just another new avenue for the Nationals to take en route to a loss.

“It’s gut-wrenching,” said reliever Tyler Clippard, who issued a walk that was followed by Rickie Weeks’ home run in the seventh to cut the Nationals‘ lead to 6-5.

The breaking point for a bullpen and a team that had lost just one game when leading after seven innings would come in the eighth. Sean Burnett retired Prince Fielder on a groundout to third, and the game was turned over to Henry Rodriguez.

It was just the second time the Nationals‘ flame-throwing, but occasionally wild, right-hander was trusted with a lead — and the first time that lead was less than seven runs. But he’d garnered enough of manager Jim Riggleman’s trust with four straight scoreless outings (seven strikeouts, no walks) to earn the appearance. Closer Drew Storen, who threw 25 pitches in Monday’s 11-3 loss, sat idly in a quiet bullpen as Rodriguez sandwiched a single and a walk around a strikeout of Mark Kotsay.

Storen still was sitting when Jonathan Lucroy sent a flare to right field that scored both runners, and the Nationals were on their way to their fourth straight defeat.

Rodriguez has been outstanding as of late, so to tell you the truth, I thought it was pretty obvious,” Riggleman said of the decision not to turn to Storen. “It’s always tempting, but he threw 25 pitches [Monday] night, and I felt good with Rodriguez in there. It was a flare hit. It happens. That flare hit could have happened off Storen.”

As the Nationals quietly absorbed another loss and former Cy Young winner Zack Greinke awaiting them Wednesday afternoon, most were hard-pressed to come up with something they’d have done differently.

“Sometimes it happens in baseball,” said Nationals starter Livan Hernandez, who allowed three earned runs in six innings and was a tough-luck loser for the third straight start.

“We’re not going to be perfect every time. This is baseball, and in baseball [you have to] finish 27 outs.”

But through the first 19 outs, the Nationals looked as though they might finally cruise to a victory — one that would have been just their second in the past eight days. They saw Michael Morse hit his first career grand slam, a ball crushed into the second deck in left. Ian Desmond and Livan Hernandez added RBI hits to chase left-hander Chris Narveson after just 3 1/3 innings.

And they loaded the bases with two outs in the ninth off Milwaukee’s John Axford, but Morse, who finished a triple shy of the cycle, flied out to right.

“It stings,” Riggleman said. “But [Monday] night’s stung, too. They all sting. The game was played right. You’ve got a powerful young pitcher on the mound that’s throwing the heck out of the ball, and you get beat with a flare hit. What are you going to do?”