It was as crushing a loss as the Brewers have absorbed all season, considering they had received 5 2/3 promising innings from 26-year-old Mark Rogers, who made his first Major League start in nearly two years as a replacement for the departed Zack Greinke. Rogers exited in line for his first Major League win.
The Brewers entered the eighth inning with a 7-3 lead and entered the ninth leading, 9-7, after back-to-back home runs by Norichika Aoki and Carlos Gomez.
And yet they lost.
"Inexplicable," said John Axford, the former closer who was right in the middle of Sunday's letdown. "It's tough to describe what's happening."
Michael Morse accounted for the Nationals' final four runs, belting a tying two-run home run in the ninth inning and a go-ahead two run double in the 11th. But each of the Nationals' final three rallies began with a walk, a maddening problem for a Brewers bullpen that was supposed to be one of the team's strengths.
Sunday's game instead extended a terrible stretch for Brewers relievers, who squandered leads in all three games at Philadelphia last week in a sweep that pushed the team toward trading Greinke to the Angels for prospects.
Francisco Rodriguez suffered two blown saves in the Phillies series and was bumped from the closer's role at the start of this homestand. He inherited a 7-3 lead on Sunday and recorded only one out. Rodriguez walked the first batter he faced, surrendered a home run on a curveball to Roger Bernadina and then a single to the No. 8 hitter, prompting a call for Axford. He fared only marginally better, allowing a sharp double to the first batter he faced, followed by a run-scoring groundout and a wild pitch that scored the tying run.
Aoki and Gomez hit back-to-back home runs in the bottom of the eighth to provide another Brewers lead, this time 9-7, and again it slipped away. Axford walked Mark DeRosa after being ahead in the count, 1-2, then surrendered a home run on an 0-2 pitch to Morse that hugged the right-field foul line.
For the record, Axford could be saddled with only one blown save. The Brewers have 20 of them this season, worst in the Majors.
Veras pitched a scoreless 10th inning but could not replicate that success in the 11th, allowing two walks and three hits, including Morse's two-run double.
Corey Hart homered in the 11th for the Brewers, but Nationals closer Tyler Clippard logged his 20th save.
"You never know until the last out," Morse said. "We just kept battling. It was a tough game for both teams, and it seemed like it was a boxing match -- just kept going back and forth, back and forth. We just hung in there and came out on top."
Axford struggled to describe the Brewers bullpen's failures, "especially after the run we had last year, mainly between 'Frankie' and myself. We had discussions throughout the year, trying to maybe pull answers from each other to see what's going on, and we can't explain it.
"Maybe it is just a domino effect right now. Last year, when things were going great, they just kept going. When someone stepped in a hole, we pulled them right out of it. ... Right now, it seems like if someone steps in that hole, we're digging it even deeper for them and we're all jumping in. It's not really working out."
This Brewers bullpen is the team's worst since 2006, when 23 men threw a pitch in relief for Milwaukee, including the likes of Joe Winkelsas, who was working as a trash collector before giving baseball another shot, and Chris Demaria, Chris Mabeus and Allan Simpson. None of those players appeared in the Majors again.
That '06 bullpen combined for a 5.03 ERA, worst in the National League. After combining to surrender nine Nationals runs in 5 1/3 innings on Sunday, this year's bullpen has a 4.80 ERA. Brewers relievers entered Sunday ranked 27th in the Majors in walks allowed, 28th in relief ERA, 29th in batting average against and worst in blown saves.
Now, the Brewers are making changes.
They added veteran Minor Leaguer Jim Henderson to the mix on Thursday and he delivered three scoreless outings during the Nationals series, including a one-out stint on Sunday that bailed Rogers out of a sixth-inning jam. Another new arm will be in uniform by Monday, when the Brewers continue their homestand against the rebuilding Astros.
Rogers will get another chance to pitch for the Brewers next weekend in St. Louis. He got off to a shaky start on Sunday when Steve Lombardozzi led off the game with a home run, but the right-hander settled in to pitch 5 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on six hits, with one walk and seven strikeouts.
Rickie Weeks homered off Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez to pad Rogers' lead. It did not last.
"It's hard to get too negative about the end results of the game when I think about what he did, and I think about what the offense did, which was really good," Roenicke said. "We battled to the end. We just didn't pitch well out of the bullpen again."