- The Washington Times - Monday, August 11, 2008

MILWAUKEE | The ball left Gabe Kapler’s bat and tucked inside Miller Park’s left foul pole with a feeling of directness - like when a door slams shut.

In one sense, it confirmed that the Washington Nationals‘ bullpen would, in fact, pay for its afternoon of wildness, that eight walks after the sixth inning wouldn’t go unpunished.

In another, it was a course correction for a group still being stretched beyond its means.

The Nationals’ bullpen, which entered the team’s current road trip with the best ERA in the majors since the All-Star break, now has been responsible for the only two losses of the road swing in which Washington’s offense did enough to win the game.

Sunday’s 5-4, 13-inning loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, came after eight bullpen walks, two of which helped the Brewers stage an eighth-inning rally and wipe out the effects of Washington’s first back-to-back homers in two months.

Kapler led off the 13th by hitting Luis Ayala’s 2-2 pitch to left for a walk-off homer, giving the Brewers their third straight win over the Nationals.

It wasn’t as definitive a bullpen meltdown as Tuesday, when three relievers combined to walk four batters and hit two in turning a tie game into an 8-2 Rockies win. But it signaled again that there are going to be some rough spots when almost an entire group of relievers is being asked to take on new roles, some of which might be too lofty.

“In this place, with those thumpers sitting over there, you can’t give them those free passes like that,” pitching coach Randy St. Claire said. “This is a team that doesn’t even walk.”

The 13 walks, including five issued by starter John Lannan, tied a major league high this season and are the most since the team came to Washington. But only two of them hurt.

After the Nationals had taken a 4-1 lead in the eighth inning on back-to-back homers from Austin Kearns and Lastings Milledge, Saul Rivera gave the three-run margin right back.

He walked Prince Fielder with one out, and after he struck out Corey Hart, things only got worse. Bill Hall reached on an infield single, then Rivera walked Mike Cameron to load the bases before leaving the game. Joel Hanrahan entered and gave up a three-run double to Mike Rivera that tied the game at 4-4.

Saul Rivera is one of two Nationals pitchers being asked to fill the setup role now that Jon Rauch has been traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The other is Ayala, who has done so little to engender confidence that he was the second-to-last man sitting in the bullpen Sunday, entering the game in the 13th only so the Nationals still had long reliever Steven Shell available.

Ayala has been a vital part of the Nationals’ bullpen since the team was in Montreal, but in a contract year, his ERA has ballooned to 6.04.

“It’s very surprising. He’s been struggling on and off the whole season, mostly on now,” manager Manny Acta said. “You can’t even hide him right now. He comes out there, comes into situations like this, and he’s just not making pitches.”

St. Claire said Ayala’s problems are half mechanical, half mental. But more than anything, St. Claire suspects Ayala is putting undue pressure on himself to earn a raise after the season.

“You’re a professional athlete. You’ve got a contract coming up,” St. Claire said. “You put pressure [on yourself] to have a good year instead of focusing on getting the job done. Then you have a good year.”

Lannan struggled with his control as much as anyone but again showed how capable he is of holding a team in check even on his off days. He actually took a no-hitter into the sixth inning, allowing one unearned run before leaving after the sixth.

He has allowed two earned runs in his last 13 innings. Though he doesn’t have a win to show for it, he helped Washington get in position to close the Brewers out with a three-run eighth.

Five innings later, the chance to win departed when Ayala’s flat sinker left his hand.

“Right now, I pitch very bad,” Ayala said. “So I’ve got to work.”

Note - The Nationals announced they have agreed to terms with fifth-round pick Adrian Nieto, a switch-hitting catcher from American Heritage High School in Hialeah, Florida. Nieto signed for $376,000, roughly double the slot recommendation and a larger signing bonus than any player signed in either the fourth or fifth round so far. He will sign the deal at noon Monday.

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