Home runs had been a rarity for Sean Burnett and Rick Ankiel. For Ankiel, the Washington Nationals outfielder whose season had twice been derailed by injury, the rarity was hitting them. For Burnett, it was giving them up.
Both happened in the span of an inning Saturday afternoon. While one gave the Nationals new life in making it a tie game, the other, ultimately, did them in. Combined with their failures with runners in scoring position, the Nats fell 5-3 in the first game of a doubleheader with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
"We had the right guys up," said Nationals manager Davey Johnson, noting the team's bases loaded opportunity in the fifth that ended with cleanup-hitter Laynce Nix striking out.
"We had bases loaded and we just aren't doing the job. The back end of the bullpen didn't do a good job today but we're getting there. I still feel real good."
The Nationals had come back from a two-run Pirates first inning with an RBI single by Ivan Rodriguez in the second and Livan Hernandez kept the game deadlocked at 2-1 through seven innings. When Ankiel stepped to the plate as a pinch hitter in the seventh, he'd played in 47 games since last hitting a home run in April 2.
He worked the count to 3-2 and waited as Pirates pitcher James McDonald and catcher Michael McKenry decided on their pitch. Ankiel promptly deposited the curveball they settled on into the seats over the out-of-town scoreboard in right field to tie the game at 2.
A baserunning blunder by Roger Bernadina — where he inexplicably was rounding third from first base on a line out to left field by Jayson Werth — gave the Pirates a double play to end the frame.
Burnett entered the game for the eighth and got one quick but quickly gave up back-to-back home runs to left-handed hitter Garrett Jones and Andrew McCutchen that would decide the game.
"Burnett, that's got to be his spot," Johnson said. "Left-hander's coming up, we know [Tyler] Clippard can do it but I can't burn Clippard all along so Sean's got to get that and I feel confident that he will."
Notes: The Nationals made a few lineup changes for Game 2 of the doubleheader with Nix getting the night off and Bernadina playing left with Ankiel in center. Danny Espinosa was also bumped up to the No. 2 slot and Jayson Werth dropped to the No. 5 spot in the lineup.
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