Nothing has been easy for the Washington Nationals this season. Thursday’s day game was no exception. After building a late-game 7-3 lead — then blowing it — Bryce Harper’s first walk-off home run delivered a 9-7 win over the wild card leading Pittsburgh Pirates, ending a six-game losing streak in the process, before 38,862 at Nationals Park.
Both managers were tossed for arguing balls and strikes and were long-gone by the time the dramatic ending happened. The Nats wasted two separate four-run leads, but Harper allowed the Nats to go home happy for the first time since the All-Star game last week.
The Nats got on the scoreboard first against Pirates starter A.J. Burnett. Bryce Harper was hit by Burnett’s second pitch of the game. Steve Lombardozzi bunted and beat the throw by catcher Russell Martin. First baseman Gaby Sanchez caught Harper rounding second and got Harper into a run-down. The throw got away from third baseman Pedro Alvarez though, allowing Harper to come all the way around to score and Lombo to settle in at second base.
Ryan Zimmerman followed with a single to right field, which plated Lombardozzi to give the Nats a 2-0 lead.
They extended that lead later in the inning. With two outs, Ian Desmond singles, moving Zimmerman up 90 feet. Denard Span followed with a single to right that scored Zimmerman from second cleanly, and Desmond scored on first baseman Gaby Sanchez’ throwing error.
The four-run lead held until the fourth inning, despite Gonzalez allowing lead-off hitters to reach each inning. In the fourth, Sanchez led off with a single and went to third on Clint Barmes’ one-out double. Burnett grounded to first, which was enough contact to allow Sanchez to scamper home with the Bucs’ first run of the game.
The Pirates put two more up in the sixth of Gonzalez. Sanchez led off, once again, with a single, and promptly scored on light-hitting Josh Harrison’s two-run home run. Harrison has six career home runs, three of which have come off Gonzalez.
Gonzalez retired the next two hitters, then issued a walk to Starling Marte, ending his day after 119 pitches. Craig Stammen relieved and coaxed a ground-ball out from Jordy Mercer to end the frame.
This wasn’t Gonzalez’ most effective outing of the season, but the lefty exited as the pitcher of record for the Nats regardless. He went 5 2/3 innings, allowing three earned runs on eight hits and four walks, striking out 11.
The Nats tacked on three runs in the eighth inning off Pirates reliever Vin Mazzaro. With one out, Roger Bernadina earned a walk (his 10th of the season). Harper singled to right to move The Shark to third, and Lombardozzi continued his hot day (3-for-5) with a ground-rule double down the left field line, which scored Bernadina to make it 5-3.
After Zimmerman struck out looking, Adam LaRoche’s sinking liner to right got past Travis Snyder’s dive all the way to the wall, allowing both runners to score and LaRoche to slide into third with his third triple of the season.
It’s never easy with the 2013 Nats though. The Pirates cut into the lead in the ninth against Rafeal Soriano. The Nats closer, who has not had a save situation in two weeks, walked the first two batters of the inning, then allowed an RBI single to Mercer. After striking out Andrew McCutcheon for the first out, Martin snuck a ground ball through the hole to score Marte and cut the lead to 7-5.
Interim manager Randy Knorr lifted Soriano (0.1 IP, 2 H, 2 BB, 4 ER) and replaced him with rookie Ian Krol. Krol (BS 1, W, 1-0) walked the first batter he saw, lefty Pedro Alvarez. Jose Tabata struck out swinging for the second out, but Josh Harrison’s third hit of the day plated two to tie the game. Krol struck out Garrett Jones to end the debacle, but not until the Pirates had finished crushing the Nats’ souls with a four-run ninth inning.
Harper resurrected those souls with his blast, if only for one day.
THE GOOD: It’s no surprise that when the top of the Nats order gets on base, the Nats will score runs. Harper (two hits, two runs), Lombo (three hits, two runs, RBI), Zimmerman (three hits, run, RBI) and LaRoche (two hits, two RBIs) all had big days for the Nats.
THE BAD: Jayson Werth, who has been the Nats sole source of offense the past week, went 0-for-4 with three Ks.
THE UGLY: Home plate umpire Mike Winters. The strike zone was, to be kind, horrible. Both managers were ejected arguing balls and strikes, and at one point, Pirates starter A.J. Burnett simply stood on the rubber laughing at Winters call of a ball that appeared to be right down the middle of the plate.
THE STATS: 14 hits, 3 BBs, 7 Ks. 5-for-14 with RISP, 11 LOB. No errors, 1 DP.
NEXT GAME: Doubleheader Friday against the Mets. Game 1 at 1:35 pm pits Jordan Zimmermann (12-5, 3.01) vs. Jenrry Mejia (season debut). Game two at 7:05 pm features Ross Ohlendorf (2-0, 2.03) vs. Matt Harvey (8-2, 2.23).