Nats Can't Stop the Bleeding, Lose to Pirates Again

Freddy Sanchez slides home with the go-ahead run in the ninth inning as Nationals reliever Joel Hanrahan covers the plate following his wild pitch.
Freddy Sanchez slides home with the go-ahead run in the ninth inning as Nationals reliever Joel Hanrahan covers the plate following his wild pitch. (By John Mcdonnell -- The Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 21, 2009

The rise and fall of emotions ended with a fall, because it always does.

Last night, in the ninth inning, Joel Hanrahan threw 24 pitches while the game was still tied. The pitcher -- and those watching him -- experienced moments of trouble and chances to escape. Hanrahan was throwing pitches in the dirt and taking deep breaths; the fans were groaning, then on their feet; Washington's entire coaching staff ascended to the second dugout step, one knee forward. There's no way to sit comfortably when you're watching out for a crash.

Because on the 25th pitch of Hanrahan's night -- a wild pitch that scooted through the legs of catcher Wil Nieves -- the Washington Nationals fell to the Pirates, 2-1 at Nationals Park. The ninth inning had, at once, rousing tension and a routine result: The Nationals lost their seventh in a row, and their on-again-off-again closer couldn't protect a tie. On a night of oh-so-close moments, including the Josh Willingham flyout to deep center that ended the game, Hanrahan's one-inning cliff-walk typified Washington's problems.

In that inning, trouble arrived from all angles. Hanrahan, hitting 95 mph, had a lively fastball. He also threw just a few nasty sliders -- the sort that break at the knees, and look like a strike until the last second, when the batter already has committed to a swing. When Hanrahan is rolling, as he often was last year, he can save games with those two pitches alone.

But here, a little bad luck collided with a few bad pitches, and soon, everybody was thinking bad thoughts. The Pirates began the inning, Hanrahan's first, with three of the first four batters hitting soft singles -- the sort that go down as groundouts if your third baseman isn't guarding the line, or if your second baseman happens to be playing in the hole.

Pittsburgh loaded the bases.

Both Manager Manny Acta and Nieves paid Hanrahan separate mound visits.

"I just tried to settle him down," Acta said.

"I was just telling him to calm down," Nieves said. "He was leaving the ball up, and it seemed like he was real excited."

At that point, the game was tied at 1. Washington's John Lannan went seven innings -- just the fifth time all season a Nationals starter has done so -- and teamed with Pittsburgh's Paul Maholm on a stellar pitcher's duel. Hanrahan, who rooms with Lannan on the road, tried to remain relaxed. He thought back to some earlier conversations with fellow bullpen members, where they decided, collectively, to let loose.

Recalled Hanrahan: "We all said, 'Take the pressure off.' We already have the worst bullpen stats in the league, and if they change us out they'll change us out. We've just got to go out there and kind of say, 'This is what we're going to do, this is what we've got, and we're coming after you.' "

With the bases loaded and one out, then, Hanrahan faced Brandon Moss, who was pinch-hitting for Craig Monroe. Earlier in the frame, Hanrahan had been high with his slider. But here, it was dropping too low. He threw one that bounced in the dirt. Then he threw another. Nieves blocked both, but when the count ran full, the crowd groaned.


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