By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 12, 2008
PITTSBURGH, June 11 -- The Washington Nationals wanted it both ways. They wanted, at once, to forget about the previous night and build on it. Entering Wednesday evening's game at PNC Park, the Nationals hoped to leave behind the heat of a dugout argument while retaining the spark of a comeback win.
But the Nationals proved Wednesday with their 3-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates that one night's spark flickers away fast. It doesn't turn into something brighter. For the second time in a week, the team missed the chance to build a win into a winning streak. Not since May 18-19 have the Nationals won two games in a row.
The loss -- Washington's ninth in 11 games -- offered at least part of what the team wanted, though. It carried none of the dugout drama of one night earlier, when Elijah Dukes and Manager Manny Acta argued during the ninth inning after a go-ahead home run. Acta said before this game that 1.) Dukes would start in right field, batting second, and 2.) the incident, as far as he was concerned, was dead.
Minutes later, General Manager Jim Bowden spoke about the comeback win, a 7-6 thriller featuring five Washington home runs, and wished that the game's best elements could carry on. Bowden said such a win had the potential to "spark" a team long-term.
But especially in baseball, carryover can be a curious thing.
Same as one night prior, Washington fell behind in the first inning. When Jason Bay doubled to left field, scoring Nate McLouth, Pittsburgh had three hits and one run in three at-bats. Washington starter John Lannan had thrown 12 pitches and received one mound visit from his pitching coach.
Same as one night prior, Washington had a chance in the ninth against Pittsburgh closer Matt Capps. But this time, no home run shattered Capps's control of the ballgame. With Ryan Langerhans on first, Dukes blistered a ground ball to third that turned into a game-ending double play.
Fireworks lit the sky.
The Pirates, not the Nationals, formed a double-line on the field for high-fives, and everybody slapped hands.
"There's never a carryover unless you have a good game," Acta said. "I'm not big on those kinds of things, momentum and all that kind of stuff. I'm just big on doing things right so things can go right for you. But I believe that [Tuesday] night, and the way they swung the bats -- I think it helped a bit today. But it didn't show in the score."
The game's starters, Ian Snell and Lannan, both had reasons for dreading too much carryover. Both, rather, wanted the chance for a turnaround.
Lannan had the chance to overwrite the worst start of his career -- a May 2 game against Pittsburgh where six runs chased him from the game after three innings. Snell, meanwhile, had the chance to begin rebuilding the worst season of his career; he entered Wednesday's game with a 2-6 record and a 5.65 ERA, a puzzling downgrade from 2007, when he posted a 9-12 record but a 3.76 ERA.
Washington's lineup saw the Snell of 2007. "He had that good breaking pitch working," catcher Jesús Flores said.
And Pittsburgh's lineup saw the reason why Lannan is perhaps the Nationals' most reliable starter, a left-hander whose worth is measured more by ERA (3.43) than by record (4-7).
"This young guy is absolutely making sure we know he's part of our future here," Acta said of Lannan, who lasted six innings, allowing two runs. "He goes out there regardless of his stuff on any given day and gives us a chance to win."
Lannan and Snell exited at the same moment in the top of the seventh, the former for a pinch hitter, the latter for a reliever. They left behind a game Pittsburgh led, 2-0. A game much in doubt.
This time, however, the Nationals came up short.
They were just short of chasing down two key hits that propelled Pittsburgh to an insurance run in the seventh and a 3-1 lead off of Joel Hanrahan. Lastings Milledge just missed on a diving attempt for a Ryan Doumit flare to center, and second baseman Felipe López ended up two feet shy of catching Xavier Nady's RBI single.
They were just short, too, at the plate in the eighth, when Pittsburgh's Tyler Yates walked consecutive batters but then forced López into a fly out and Willie Harris into a soft groundout.
For the ninth, Capps returned to the mound. One night after his first blown save.
Milledge, whose two-run homer off Capps had highlighted the 7-6 win, was standing on deck when the game ended.