MILWAUKEE - In a 162-game baseball season, where daily results form moving averages like stock prices, it's sometimes difficult to locate a turning point - the one game, or even the one at-bat, where everything changed. Not every season has one. But for the Nationals in 2010, the unscientific guess is that it came in Houston in early June, in the eighth game of a three-city road trip, when Lance Berkman checked his swing on a pitch from Matt Capps, got a ball call the Nationals didn't like and hit the next pitch out of the park for a walk-off homer.
The Nationals fell below .500 that night for the last time. They never made it back above it.
Fast-forward to 2011, in another three-city road trip where the Nationals have been fighting to keep themselves on track. They put first baseman Adam LaRoche on the disabled list before the game, meaning they'd enter June without the No. 3 and No. 4 hitters from their opening day lineup. They entered Milwaukee's Miller Park, another early-2000s retractable-roof park where they've found it nearly impossible to win. And they got flattened by the Milwaukee Brewers.
Tom Gorzelanny gave up three home runs in an 11-3 loss - the second time he's done that in three starts. Corey Hart, who hadn't homered all year, hit three homers off two different pitchers. The Nationals had fly balls die inches from the wall, just like they did on Sunday in Baltimore. They left runners on base when the game was still in question, and drove in most of their runs when it wasn't. And they lost for the fifth time in six games, falling a season-worst five games below .500.
It might not be the start of a protracted slide, but the few players standing in a silent clubhouse after the game said there's another level the Nationals need to find.
"You don't let last night's game affect you. Go out and play," said second baseman Danny Espinosa, who got drilled in the right knee with a pitch in the ninth inning. "If you're going to carry that stuff around, we're not going to get anywhere. We're too good of a team. I don't think anybody comes in here, thinking that, 'We've lost the last few games. We really need to do something extra-special to get things turned around. You just go out there. You play the game. That's what we've been doing - we've been playing hard. We've been pitching well. Things are going to turn our way."
They haven't been going the Nationals' way lately. They went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position on Monday, with Wilson Ramos and Michael Morse both nearly sending balls out of the park. Morse hit one homer, a solo shot in the second inning, but the Nationals couldn't do anything else until the game was out of reach.
The Brewers, on the other hand, got all of their runs in three innings - the first, the fifth and the eighth - punctuating all of them with Hart homers. The right fielder, who was leading the National League in home runs at this time last year, became the first Brewers played in nearly eight years to hit three in a game.
Gorzelanny, who might have been the Nationals' best starter in the season's first month, has now given up 11 homers in nine starts, or as many as he gave up in 136 1/3 innings last year.
"(You don't feel good) when you give up six runs," Gorzelanny said. "It doesn't matter how you feel. I give up three home runs a game, and they score a lot of runs. I'm not making pitches. I'm making mistakes. That's how it happens."
In what was supposed to be an easy part of their schedule, with 13 games against teams at or below .500, the Nationals are now 2-5 with a rainout. They'll face 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke on Thursday, and after they end a six-game homestand with the Phillies, they'll head back out on an 11-game road trip to the West Coast, their longest of the year.
With more than two-thirds of the season left, it's impossible to know whether the Nationals are in a season-defining skid or a momentary spike on the curve. Those are questions for after the season. But if they're as good as they believe they can be, they need to show it soon.
"We're better than this, and we know it," Morse said. "It's tough, because it's one of five on this road trip. The talent we've got, it's frustrating right now. But all it takes is a couple good innings, and we'll get out of this."