Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Even when they have lost this season, the Washington Nationals rarely have been overwhelmed by an opponent. And even on those rare occasions when they have let a game get away from them, it has come against the likes of Dontrelle Willis or Josh Beckett [-] premier pitchers with a record of dominating performances.

So imagine the unease that began building throughout RFK Stadium around the fifth inning last night and crescendoed in the seventh as heretofore-unheard-of Milwaukee Brewers right-hander Wes Obermueller kept retiring every hitter the Nationals sent to the plate.

By the time Jamey Carroll came up with one out in the seventh with Obermueller still working on a perfect game, the tension among the crowd of 26,427 was becoming palpable.

In the batter’s box, Carroll tried not to get caught up in the moment.

“Obviously, you know what’s going on,” he said. “But it’s not like the world’s coming to an end.”

Sure enough, Carroll sent a sharp liner into right field for Washington’s long-awaited first hit of the night, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The Nationals may have lost this game 8-2, but at least they were spared the ignominy of getting no-hit by Obermueller.

That’s about the best thing that can be said about this one from Washington’s point of view, aside from Tomo Ohka’s impressive 5[2/3] innings of mop-up duty. Having won their previous three games to move within two games of first place in the National League East, the Nationals lost all of their momentum.

For that, you can blame Obermueller, who wound up allowing two hits and no walks in eight innings, and Claudio Vargas, who was pounded for six runs and seven hits in a 1[1/3]-inning start that was Washington’s shortest of the season.

A virtually anonymous 28-year-old from Ceder Rapids, Iowa, Obermueller entered last night’s game with no wins on the season and eight for his career. He spent the first month of the season in the Brewers’ bullpen and was starting for only the third time this year. But he sure looked like a pitcher with loftier credentials last night, coming through with the performance of his life.

“That’s why you don’t underestimate anyone that goes out there on the mound in the major leagues,” said Washington manager Frank Robinson, who [-] unbeknown to just about everyone in the park [-] was ejected in the seventh inning for arguing a called strike to Ryan Church. “He was outstanding tonight. He shut us down completely.”

The Nationals, who fielded a lineup without injured stars Jose Vidro and Jose Guillen, didn’t really come close to putting a man on base through the game’s first six innings. Obermueller (1-0) was in complete control, even if he didn’t dominate in the traditional sense of the word. He recorded just four strikeouts, two while the perfect game was still intact.

“Sure, you get a little anxious because you think about it,” Obermueller said of his flirtation with history. “I tried not to look at the score or scoreboard. I just tried to keep in my head that the score was 0-0 the whole time.”

Obermueller’s only mistake cost him the perfect game. For the first time all night, he shook off catcher Damian Miller before making his 1-2 pitch to Carroll in the seventh. Carroll promptly drilled it into right field for a single.

“I won’t ever second-guess my catcher again, I’ll tell you that,” Obermueller said.

Nick Johnson followed with a sinking blooper off Geoff Jenkins’ glove for the Nationals’ second hit. Reliever Ricky Bottalico later surrendered a two-run homer to Johnson in the ninth, quashing the shutout.

Contrast that with Vargas, who was behind almost from the moment he took the mound. Brady Clark (4-for-5) crushed his first pitch of the game over the left-field fence, and before most of fans at RFK had a chance to take their seats, the Nationals were trailing.

Things only got worse for Vargas (0-1). He needed 31 pitches to get out of the first inning, then surrendered four straight hits in the second, including a three-run homer by Carlos Lee just beyond Marlon Byrd’s reach at the left-field wall.

“I missed a lot of pitches up in the zone,” said Vargas, who pitched much better in his season debut last week in Arizona. “It’s a bad day. They swung at everything, and they hit me.”

With his team down 6-0 in the second, Robinson had no choice but to yank Vargas from the game and summon Ohka from the bullpen. Banished to the bullpen following his May 6 start in San Francisco, Ohka hadn’t been seen or heard from since, raising questions about his future with the organization.

He could be back in the Nationals plans after bailing out Vargas in admirable fashion. Ohka saved Robinson’s bullpen with 5[2/3] standout innings, allowing only two hits and a walk.

“That’s a step in the right direction, and you certainly file that away,” Robinson said. “If he goes out there and continues to do that, it will put a lot of pressure on us to try to find a spot in the rotation for him.”

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