Washington Nationals Defeat Pittsburgh Pirates, 8-4

Ryan Zimmerman trots down the third baseline past Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens after hitting a two-run home run in the seventh inning.
Ryan Zimmerman trots down the third baseline past Pirates pitcher Jeff Karstens after hitting a two-run home run in the seventh inning. (Gene J. Puskar - AP)

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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Aug. 3 -- Fangraphs.com is a Web site that specializes in seamhead mathematical analysis; it is the left hemisphere of a baseball nerd's brain. During games, as innings roll, the site tabulates something called Win Expectancy, which is fairly self-explanatory. Using historical data, Fangraphs charts the exact chance -- based on the score, the scenario, the inning -- of a victory.

Up and down the odds spike, until at some point the spiking stops. A pitcher like Garrett Mock, washed up after four-plus innings, leaves behind a 3-0 deficit and a bases-loaded, no-outs situation, the bullpen door swings open, and the rest is all inevitability. More runs. Long night. Defeat.

Right?

Not so. What happened when the bullpen gates opened Monday night at PNC Park triggered one of the most unlikely Washington victories of the season -- an 8-4 decision against the Pittsburgh Pirates that was helped by one spastic reversal of fortune. When Tyler Clippard jogged toward the mound, entering the jam, Washington's win expectancy was 5.7 percent, and heading toward the point of no return. The Nationals were sinking, looking at their third potential loss in four games against the last-place Pirates, and somehow looking for the 24-year-old Clippard to toss a life preserver.

There in the fifth, Pittsburghers on every base, Clippard did just that. An 0-2 fastball did the trick. Delwyn Young smacked it back to Clippard. The pitcher threw home. The catcher threw to first. Smack-smack. A double play. The win expectancy rose to 11.5 percent. When Clippard retired the next batter -- Andy LaRoche popped to short -- the jam was over, and the win expectancy was at 15.5 percent.

"That was really a huge point in the game for us," interim manager Jim Riggleman said.

"For him to come in and shut the door in that situation, that was the game," Adam Dunn said.

It's hardly worth plotting the win expectancy after that, except to say that almost every subsequent pitch in the next two innings transformed a near-certain loss into a near-certain win. Washington entered the top of the sixth with just two hits against Pittsburgh starter Charlie Morton, who had retired nine of 10.

But in the sixth, similar groundball singles to right by Anderson Hernández and Cristian Guzmán led to one run. Then, after Ryan Zimmerman was hit by a pitch, Dunn stroked a 2-1 Morton fastball down the opposite line, tucking it just inside the foul pole for a three-run homer. The Nationals, in a jolt to the crowd, had a 4-3 lead. Their win expectancy, in one swing, had soared from 28.2 to 63.1 percent.

"I guess nobody can ever say it definitely, but it takes a little wind out of your sails when you've got the bases loaded and no outs and don't score, and it pumps the other team up a little bit," Riggleman said, explaining the carryover effect.

And up it continued, as Washington scored four more runs in the top of the seventh. With Morton gone, the Nationals sunk their teeth into Jeff Karstens, ensuring they could leave Pittsburgh with a series split and end this eight-game trip with their fourth victory. All with two outs in the seventh, Nyjer Morgan singled, Guzmán tripled, and Zimmerman bulleted his 21st homer of the year one row beyond the wall in left-center. Washington, suddenly, had a 92.9 percent chance of winning.

On this night, most of the credit for Washington's transformation belonged to Clippard, who pitched three scoreless innings, even batting once to stay in the game. Clippard inherited a mess from Mock, who in his fourth start this season continued his charitable lending to National League offensive statistics. Mock has yet to go more than 5 1/3 innings in any of his four starts. Opponents entered with a .403 average against him in those outings.

Here, the first batter he faced (Andrew McCutchen) homered down the left field line. Mock faced 23 hitters, and threw at least two balls to 12 of them, walking four.

The fifth inning set the stage for an unsatisfying exit. He walked Garrett Jones on four pitches. He allowed a soft Ryan Doumit single to right -- bouncing just under Dunn's glove -- on a 3-1 count. He walked Steve Pearce on six pitches. Riggleman had seen enough, and extracted his pitcher from the game after four-plus innings and 87 pitches.

But that's where Clippard came in, and the double play changed everything.

"That was huge," Clippard said. "That was the turn of the game right there. I was trying to approach that situation with the mentality of putting a zero there, not letting anybody score. It's not always easy with nobody out and the bases loaded, but I was gonna do what I can."


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