By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 2, 2009
PITTSBURGH, Aug. 1 -- In the local counties, at least, what Andrew McCutchen accomplished on Saturday night will be venerated as a modest form of history. The 22-year-old, in one game, hit three home runs. Page 187 of your 2009 Pittsburgh Pirates media guide: There's the list of the nine previous Pittsburgh players to do it. Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Ralph Kiner. Those are some of the names.
Page 187 lists the opponents, too, of course. They're footnotes, a matter of record-keeping. In the moment, though, they're the enablers, and Saturday night, the Washington Nationals employed an assortment of pitchers, all adept at facilitating an irregular one-man long-ball barrage. In Pittsburgh's 11-6 victory over Washington at PNC Park, McCutchen, drafted in the same first round (2005) that sent Ryan Zimmerman to D.C., single-handedly created the difference. He went 4 for 5 with six RBI. His three homers came against three pitchers. Now two months into a promising rookie season, McCutchen doubled his career home run total in one night, earned a curtain call after his final shot, and received a standing ovation before his eighth-inning at-bat.
The Nationals, meantime, were left to dwell on less promising matters. They lost their fourth game in a row. They left 12 on base. Their own starter, Craig Stammen, was pulled in the fourth. They played from behind almost all night. After the game, pitching coach Steve McCatty pulled his pitching staff into a small coaches' office and delivered an unfiltered critique.
"Get your head out of your butt and get it done," is how Stammen paraphrased the message.
The Nationals played from behind because Stammen put them there. The right-hander, making the 14th start of his career, became the helpless foil for a slideshow of Pirates highlights, most of which included Washington outfielders approaching the warning track with varying degrees of acrobatic velocity.
There was left fielder Josh Willingham, barely airborne, reaching over the six-foot wall in left, trying (without success) to keep McCutchen's leadoff first-inning homer in the yard. There was Willingham, two innings later, charging into the corner to retrieve Lastings Milledge's two-RBI double, which gave Pittsburgh a 3-2 lead. There was center fielder Nyjer Morgan, hitting the wall with a paintball splatter in the fourth, falling just short of a basket catch on an Andy LaRoche RBI triple. And later that inning, in a change of pace, there was Willingham, hardly even moving as a McCutchen line-drive home run -- low and straight enough to go through the Fort Pitt Tunnel -- rocketed into the first row of left field.
"He's a special breed," said Morgan, who knows McCutchen from their time together in Pittsburgh. "He's one of the most special talents I've ever seen since I've been in the game. For a kid that young to have the bat speed like that and have the patience at the dish, there's something there that the Pirates will definitely be enjoying for a long time."
Said McCutchen: "It was just one of those days where everything worked. It's a day I know I won't forget."
McCutchen's second home run of the night came with Tyler Clippard on the mound, and gave Pittsburgh a 7-2 lead. But it also finalized the pitching line for Stammen, whose primary asset on this night was an ability to turn the National League's 13th-best offense into a dynamo. After Washington jumped to a 2-0 lead in the first -- four of its first five hitters reached against Virgil Vasquez -- Pittsburgh summarily clawed back, took the lead, then enlarged it. Stammen had allowed three runs and five hits through three, but a sub-par night devolved after that. The fourth began with three consecutive Pittsburgh hits, including the LaRoche triple and a Brandon Moss flare to center that Morgan just missed with a headfirst dive.
When Morgan rose and threw home, trying to nail LaRoche, the ball tailed toward the third base side and kicked away from Josh Bard -- an error charged to Morgan. Interim manager Jim Riggleman, witnessing his team's first error since July 24, shook his head. He then emerged from the dugout and terminated the roughest, shortest start of Stammen's career.
"I didn't really throw too many competitive pitches when I needed to," Stammen said.
Though Pittsburgh truly put the game out of reach in the sixth, an inning in which McCutchen's three-run homer off Logan Kensing gave the Pirates an 11-4 lead, Washington never should have been at the bottom of a blowout. Not with Vasquez, who entered with a 6.21 ERA, on the mound. Not with so many opportunities to score. Not with multiple runners on base in five of the first six innings.
But situational hitting proved troublesome. In the sixth, for instance, the Nationals had runners on second and third, no outs, with the middle of the order coming up. Then, Zimmerman flew out to shallow right, Adam Dunn struck out, and Willingham lined to second.
"We just left too many runners out there," Riggleman said.