Nationals Lose to Pirates in 10th Inning, 8-5

Adam Dunn kicks the air in disgust after striking out in the ninth inning with teammate Ryan Zimmerman on second base and the game tied at 5.
Adam Dunn kicks the air in disgust after striking out in the ninth inning with teammate Ryan Zimmerman on second base and the game tied at 5. (By Richard A. Lipski -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Last night, the Washington Nationals recovered just enough to make it close and maximize the pain. Their lineup managed five runs when it needed six. Their bullpen recorded three scoreless innings when it needed four. The Nationals' latest loss, their sixth in a row, hurt worse than those before only because a grand recovery still produced the same result.

Rallying from five runs down, scoring a tying run on a wild pitch, avoiding the bullpen bugaboo -- that's how most teams break a losing streak. The Nationals, though, simply used those ingredients as a means to up their agony. After their 8-5 loss to the Pirates in 10 innings at Nationals Park, those who returned to the home clubhouse spoke not of how they fought back, but of how they fell just shy. The Nationals (11-27) are reliable only as heartbreakers.

If only Adam Dunn or Willie Harris had knocked in Ryan Zimmerman from second base in the ninth inning, Washington would have won. Perhaps if the lineup had taken advantage of three Evan Meek walks in the seventh, or perhaps if Austin Kearns's warning track flyout in the eighth had drifted just feet farther, Joe Beimel's three-run destruction in the top of the 10th could have been avoided. Teams like Washington, after all, don't want to get into bullpen battles. And that maligned bullpen, holding Pittsburgh scoreless between the seventh and ninth, had brought Washington to the brink of a breakthrough.

"We felt good the way we had the three scoreless innings, but we knew we had to finish the game right there," Manager Manny Acta said.

But there, in the ninth inning, after Nick Johnson tied the game on a triple and a subsequent Sean Burnett wild pitch, Washington couldn't score the potential winning run -- Zimmerman, who'd reached on a walk.

Said Dunn, who struck out swinging: "I was thinking, 'This is it. We're going to break out of it. We just need to get a big hit here.' "

Said Harris, who struck out looking: "I couldn't come up with the big hit. We had a chance to win the game right there. Now I've got to think about that tonight."

For 10 straight games, the Nationals have scored at least five runs. They've won just once in that span. As recovering from this stretch becomes increasingly difficult, the Nationals continue to rearrange their roster, searching for help.

After this game, the team placed Elijah Dukes on the disabled list with a left hamstring strain and designated for assignment infielder Alex Cintrón, who made the last out of the game. Class AAA Syracuse center fielder Justin Maxwell will replace Dukes. Reliever Jason Bergmann will replace Cintrón, giving Washington an eight-man bullpen.

"We're adding another pitcher," Acta said, "because we need it."

In many ways, Washington's season has been themed by endurance, the slow and yet-unfulfilled desire for recovery. Reliably, the lineup has been there to help the cause.

Every team is entitled to a bad offensive day here and there. It's just that the Nationals, by and large, have refused the option. During May, their lineup has maintained a pace that no other in baseball can match. It also has endured a burden that few others have needed to worry about. Not only have the Nationals been scoring more runs than almost any other team in the majors; they have been losing more games. In 18 games this month, the Nationals have scored 110 runs -- or 6.1 per game. During this span, they have just six wins.

Still, their May slugging percentage (.486) entering last night's game was best in the National League. Same with their 23 home runs. Same with their 180 hits.

At least initially, Pittsburgh starter Jeff Karstens looked capable of stifling Washington's productivity. The bats went silent. The Nationals failed to get a hit until Wil Nieves's third-inning single. Entering the sixth, Karstens had served up just three hits, including a Dunn solo homer. The Nationals trailed 5-1.

But then, the Nats' offensive machine cranked up. With two outs and Zimmerman aboard, the bottom of Washington's lineup produced three consecutive hits. Harris scooted a single up the middle. Anderson Hernández followed with a triple into the right field corner. Then, Nieves feathered a single to center. Just like that, it was a ballgame, 5-4.

Washington had given itself the deficit in the game's first few minutes. Take away the first inning, and Washington starter Shairon Martis had a beautiful start. Consider the first inning, and he had a beautiful recovery. Martis introduced himself to the Pirates by showing his very worst. The Pirates tagged him for three runs and three hits. Martis walked two and threw a wild pitch, jacking his pitch count to 31 and handing his teammates a tough deficit.

But the 22-year-old helped the Nationals out of it, too. He lasted five more innings, working through them like a sprinter who woke up late for the race. In four of those five innings, he retired the side in order. Following an Andy LaRoche two-run homer in the third -- his only subsequent hiccup -- Martis retired the next 10. He zipped through the sixth inning on five pitches, and finished with a pitch count of 85.

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