September 19, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 99 Review: Nats rally in the 9th, but lose in heartbreaking fashion to the Pirates

Jayson Werth matched Andrew McCutchen in Monday night’s box score as each of the two batters tallied two two-run homers for their respective teams. In the end, however, the Washington Nationals came up short, falling 6-5 to the Pittsburgh Pirates in perhaps their most heartbreaking loss in their succession of four straight.

The day on which the Nationals fired their hitting coach, replacing him with Rick Schu, Charlie Morton and the red-hot Pittsburgh Pirates no-hit Washington for the first four innings of play.

Dan Haren had little cause for hope with the Nats coming out of a dreadful series against the Dodgers and Andrew McCutchen positioned to do what he does best in D.C. – crush pitches.

In the top of the first, Jordy Mercer drew a nine-pitch walk off Haren with one out. And, on a 1-2 count, McCutchen hammered the ball into right center to put Pittsburgh up 2-0 early.

McCutchen repeated the feat just two innings later, this time with Starling Marte on first base due to a hit-by-pitch. McCutchen let two pitches whiz past him outside the strike zone before launching the third pitch into center field to make it 4-0 Pirates.

The second homer allowed McCutchen to record his first multi-homer game of the season and the eighth of his career.

The offense didn’t stop there. In the fifth, Russell Martin singled and Garrett Jones doubled before Gaby Sanchez hit an RBI grounder to short, making it 5-0 Pirates.

Adam LaRoche finally broke up Morton’s no-hitter with a leadoff home run in the fifth. After Jayson Werth grounded out and Ian Desmond flied out to center, Denard Span and Wilson Ramos hit back-to-back singles to keep hope for even a small rally alive.

That is until pinch-hitter Roger Bernadina stepped to the plate. After appropriately passing up on Morton’s first two pitches, Bernadina took awkward hacks at three – two of which appeared well out of the strike zone. Nevertheless, the Nationals’ opportunity was cut short.

With Bernadina batting in his place, Haren’s day came to an end. In 5.0 innings pitched, the struggling right-hander gave up five runs on five hits and one walk. He struck out six and held responsibility for both of McCutchen’s two home runs.

But, in the bottom of the seventh, Werth pulled the Nats back into contention. After LaRoche was hit by a runaway curveball, Werth put some mustard behind a hanging changeup to send it into the seats, trimming the Pirates lead to just two runs.

With two outs, Span and Ramos hit back-to-back singles to give the Nats their first real shot at catching the Pirates. With Bryan Morris in to relieve Morton, Chad Tracy stepped into the batter’s box in a clutch situation.

And, as has been the case for the greater portion of the season thus far, the Nats’ bench fell flat. On a 2-1 count, Tracy hit a slow grounder to first for an easy out No. 3 to silence deflated Nationals fans.

Ian Krol took the mound in the top of the eighth only to surrender a leadoff single to Alvarez and a walk to Martin. Pinch-hitter Jose Tabata advanced the runners on a bunt before Krol’s outing was over.

With Drew Storen on the mound in his relief, Sanchez hit a fly ball to shallow left for Harper to grab. On the play, Alvarez thought about coming home but, with respect to Harper’s arm, held at third instead.

It didn’t matter much as Storen allowed him to come home anyway on a wild pitch to Clint Barmes, which gave the Pirates an insurance run, 6-3.

In the ninth, however, the very same Nat who accounted for both of the Washington’s runs in Sunday’s contest, arose to the occasion once more.

After LaRoche drew a leadoff walk off Jason Grilli, Werth drilled an 0-1 pitch over the right-field wall to pull Washington back within one run with no outs.

Desmond followed up with a swinging strikeout, but Denard Span – of all suspects – kept Nats fans on their feet with a line drive double.

Ramos struck out swinging, resting the outcome of the game on the shoulders of the Nationals’ bench.

Davey Johnson called upon Steve Lombardozzi who, in the end came up empty with a groundout to first.

With the loss, the Nats have now dropped four straight. They are now 7-11 in the month of July and winless since the All-Star Break.

THE GOOD: It was a bad day all around for the Washington Nationals but, if one can hold onto even a shred of hope coming out of Monday night’s 6-5 loss, it is this – the Nats, at last, showed some fight for arguably the first time since the All-Star Break. True, for the second night in a row, it largely stemmed from Jayson Werth, but even so, for the first time in too long this one wasn’t over until it was over.

The problem is, in watching the Nationals this month, it’s easy to get the sense that Werth is about the only batter to take out his frustrations on the ball. For the second night in a row, he hit two homers – this time, accounting for four of the Nats’ five runs. Denard Span went 2-for-4, as did Wilson Ramos, and Adam LaRoche scored three times, despite going just 1-for-2 in the box.

In the thick of it all, one outing that went relatively unnoticed was that of Craig Stammen. In two innings pitched, he allowed no runs and just two hits and a walk. More importantly, the Nats were able to trim a run off the Pirates’ lead in that time frame without handing any back.

THE BAD: Davey Johnson summed it up perfectly, saying after the game: “It was a bad day for me. I’m glad it’s over with.” On a day when the Nationals were without a hitting coach, it only seems fitting that, in the bottom of the ninth, the outcome would rest on the shoulders of a bench player.

True, you can’t pin this loss on Steve Lombardozzi’s shoulders. How much you can even pin it on Dan Haren – whose only issue, really, was Andrew McCutchen – is subject to debate. But, even still, Monday night’s shortcomings illustrated all too perfectly why changes need to be made if the Nats want to cling to the vision of remaining “World Series or Bust.”

THE UGLY: After the game, a reporter asked Davey Johnson if the Nats’ decision to relieve Rick Eckstein was symbolic of the idea that he, himself, should step down. Johnson had been asked a similar question in the pre-game press conference, to which he affirmed he will not be quitting. Nonetheless, his response “I don’t want to go there,” became the subject of discussion shortly after the press conference ended.

THE STATS: 5 R, 9 H, 2 BB, 7 K, 3 GIDP, 0-for-3 RISP, 4 LOB

NEXT GAME: 7:05 p.m. at Nationals Park vs. Pirates – RHP Gerrit ole (4-3, 3.89) vs. RHP Taylor Jordan (0-2, 3.32)

About Alyssa Wolice

Alyssa Wolice is a Staff Writer for District Sports Page covering the Nationals and Wizards. As a former production assistant, she covered the Nationals, Redskins, Capitals, Wizards, D.C. United and local collegiate teams. You can follow Alyssa on Twitter @awolice.

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