- The Washington Times - Friday, July 31, 2009

MILWAUKEE | After tearing through the Milwaukee Brewers’ lineup for two days - to the point that skeptics were pronouncing the Brewers’ chances of winning the NL Central dead - the Washington Nationals had as good an opportunity as they’ve had all year to sweep a road series and make a statement about the second half of the year.

The consolation prize was still on the table Thursday afternoon, after the Nationals blew a four-run lead the previous night. And when Ryan Zimmerman homered to put the Nationals up by a run in the fourth inning, it appeared Washington had a chance to take three out of four games from a playoff hopeful and provide another sign of improvement under interim manager Jim Riggleman.

But the Nationals are still on the wrong side of consistency, allowing runs that shouldn’t score and missing opportunities right in front of them. Which is how two dominant wins against the Brewers, and the chance for a four-game sweep at Miller Park, turned into an underwhelming split and talk of small victories.

On Thursday, another winnable game dissolved into a 7-3 loss with a couple of fielding mishaps - though not technically errors - and a dented bullpen.

“I think, all things considered, this has got to be a step in the right direction,” said Riggleman, who was ejected in the third inning for arguing Anderson Hernandez had a foul tip on what was ruled a strikeout. “[That] we had a chance to win all four ballgames has got to be a step in the right direction for our club, to feel that we can play with these guys.”

But Thursday, they couldn’t beat them.

It wasn’t for lack of effort from starter J.D. Martin, who gave up just three runs on five hits in the first six innings, fighting back with his sinking fastball after the Brewers tagged him for a pair of home runs. Martin struck out four without a walk, limiting the damage while the Nationals managed to tie the game against electric Brewers starter Yovani Gallardo, who struck out 11 in seven innings with a live fastball and devastating curveball.

“For the most part, I had all my pitches,” Martin said. “I really felt like I made two costly mistakes - the home run to [Craig Counsell in the third inning] and the home run to [Prince Fielder in the fourth]. But other than that, everything was good.”

With his pitch count low through six innings, Martin went back out for the seventh. It quickly became evident how ill-fated that move would be.

He tried to get Mike Cameron to chase a 1-2 curveball but couldn’t get it low enough, and Cameron pulled it to left for a double. Then Martin threw a slider down the middle to Casey McGehee, who punched it to right for a single.

That prompted a visit from pitching coach Steve McCatty but no replacement. The mistakes Martin made were exacerbated by the fielding miscues the Nationals made later in the inning. They were the kind that won’t show up in the box score as errors, pushing the Nationals’ errorless streak to six games.

With no outs in the seventh, Jason Kendall hit a one-hopper to Zimmerman, who fielded it and threw to the plate several steps ahead of Cameron. But Wil Nieves fielded the ball to his left with his legs spread at shoulder width, providing a perfect gap for Cameron to slide his right foot beneath a late tag.

“I didn’t feel the ball in my glove, and by the time I felt it in my glove and I went to tag him - I just tagged him too high,” Nieves said. “I should’ve blocked [the plate]. It’s one of those plays [where] you make sure it won’t happen again.”

The Nationals argued the call, though replays clearly showed Cameron was safe. After Hernandez failed to turn a double play on Counsell, the Brewers had another extra out and a second run in the seventh despite hitting three weak infield grounders.

Then came the requisite add-on in the eighth: a pair of singles from Fielder and Corey Hart, followed by a Cameron sacrifice fly and a Mike MacDougal wild pitch that brought in Hart. Those were the final punches in a frustrating conclusion.

“I went in today with that on my mind, that we would have won the series,” Martin said. “But that’s how it goes.”

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