PITTSBURGH | Livan Hernandez has made exactly two starts in his 16 years in the major leagues where he's allowed five runs in the first inning.
The last time he managed to go six innings in a 12-8 Nationals victory over the Houston Astros in April 2006.
It just so happened that the second time came Saturday night in his 450th career start, a milestone number for the finesse right-hander that ended with his 165th career loss as the defense behind him made three costly errors and the offense put up just two runs in the Nationals third straight loss, falling 7-2 to the Pirates.
The outcome of the game was the main difference between Saturday night and Hernandez's start in 2006. Just like that game, Hernandez managed to go six innings against the Pirates. He threw 111 pitches in that outing, 110 in Saturday's and both times three of those five runs he let up in the first were unearned.
But in 2006, the Nationals had an offense that scored nearly 100 more runs than the current unit is on pace for and in that game, they rapped out 14 hits while chipping away at the Astros lead early on and took command with a six-run seventh. They were largely silenced Saturday night.
Still, the errors were what stuck.
"[The offense] is not where my thoughts are at," said Nationals manager Jim Riggleman. "We're going to get guys 5-600 at-bats. They're going to have good days and bad days with the bats but we've got to play better defense. We've just got to play better.
"We were a poor defensive ball club last year and we just cannot be a poor defensive ball club. We're too athletic to do that and we've just got to do a better job."
Two of the three errors were charged to shortstop Ian Desmond, the target of many fans ire last year when he committed 34 errors. He has six already this season and the most recent two came on attempted steals by the Pirates Saturday night — including one that he tried to snatch out of the air and swipe Lyle Overbay but dropped the ball — prompting the frustrated shortstop to change gloves mid-game to the one he uses for practice. On both errors, the runner advanced not only to second but third base as well, though only one scored.
"I wish I had an answer," Desmond said, lamenting the fact that his errors came in a notable start for teammate Hernandez. "Obviously pretty frustrating but I don't know. I changed my glove and I feel better so, that's really all I can do ... It's getting a little ridiculous.
"The first one with [Overbay running], the ball was in the air. Obviously this season it's happened couple of times but in my life I don't ever remember dropping a ball that was in the air."
But Desmond's miscues weren't the only thing that led to the Nationals undoing Saturday night. In the five-run first, two balls that went to right field turned into doubles when Jayson Werth got turned around on them and several others found holes just out of reach of fielders.
"The ball was really flying early on," Werth said, noting that the double by Jose Tabata, which lipped off his glove, was simply well-hit but that the one hit by Garrett Jones was a misplay on his part.
"Once I misread it, it was out in front of me quite a bit. It was just a wrong read. I just got fooled on it. But that happens too, sometimes. Sometimes your eyes play games with you. If I make that play, I think the inning's a little different, so that was definitely frustrating."
While the five-run inning proved to be the difference as the Nationals got two back, one on an RBI-single by Michael Morse, who was 2-for-4 and is now 7-for-20 in his last six games after a rocky start, and the other on Werth's third home run of the season.
While the Nationals offense may, at some point, put up the numbers that belie their players' talents a little more, right now it isn't hitting like one capable of overcoming such a large deficit. They moved just three runners into scoring position all night and were largely ineffective against Pirates right-hander Jeff Karstens.
"We're close," Werth, who was out for early batting practice and said it was the best he'd had all season. "We're getting there. I feel like it's all going to line up here pretty soon. Everybody's going to get locked, and we're going to take off. As little as we've hit, we're not in a bad spot. We start hitting, we'll be alright."
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