- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2006

PITTSBURGH — This is where the Washington Nationals find themselves these days: Clinging to a one-run lead against the worst team in baseball and asking a couple of relievers who were in the minor leagues a week ago to get them to their closer.

It’s not an enviable position for manager Frank Robinson, who had to watch that scenario turn into a demoralizing 7-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates last night at PNC Park.

After battling back and forth for most of the night with the Pirates, the Nationals took a 6-5 lead into the eighth inning. But with relievers Gary Majewski and Bill Bray now in Cincinnati, and with Jon Rauch unavailable because of a family emergency, Robinson was forced to turn to Micah Bowie and Roy Corcoran as his set-up men.

Neither unproven reliever came through. Bowie allowed a leadoff double to Joe Randa and a subsequent sacrifice bunt in the eighth. Corcoran entered to surrender a run-scoring sacrifice fly to Jack Wilson. One inning later, Corcoran (who was allowed to hit in the ninth inning of a tied game) immediately loaded the bases and then served up a walk-off single to Ronny Paulino. Washington suffered its fifth straight loss.

“I’m not happy at all about it,” said Corcoran, who made his first major-league appearance in two years. “That was a [horrible] outing. I didn’t make pitches where I needed to, and that was the result.”

That Corcoran, a hard-throwing 26-year-old from Louisiana, even found himself in such a situation speaks volumes about the current state of the Nationals’ pitching staff. Before the game, Robinson pondered who he might use in the seventh and eighth innings to get him to Cordero. The options weren’t pretty.

It didn’t help matters when starter Pedro Astacio lasted only 51/3 innings, throwing a whopping 95 pitches in the process. That pushed everyone in the depleted bullpen up and changed the way Robinson could manage.

So Robinson used Mike Stanton and new addition Kevin Gryboski to get through the sixth. But Gryboski allowed the Pirates to take a 5-4 lead when Wilson laid down a safety squeeze bunt on the first pitch he saw.

“I’m coming in that situation just trying to get a groundball and get out of the inning, keep the game tied,” said Gryboski, who was promoted from Class AAA New Orleans earlier in the day. “And then the first pitch, perfect bunt. There’s not really much you could do.”

Yet the Nationals came back to take a 6-5 lead thanks to Alex Escobar’s infield single in the seventh and Ryan Zimmerman’s RBI single in the eighth.

It was up to the rest of the new-look bullpen to record the night’s final six outs. But the unit failed.

Randa led off the eighth against Bowie with a ground-rule double down the right-field line, then moved to third on Nate McLouth’s sacrifice bunt. With three straight right-handed hitters on deck, Robinson signaled for Corcoran out of the bullpen.

Wilson came through again, lofting a fly ball to medium-depth center field. Luis Matos, inserted as a defensive replacement for Austin Kearns that inning, tried to gun down Randa at the plate, but his throw was well up the line.

That meant a tie game entering the ninth, with the pitcher’s spot due up second. To the surprise of many in the crowd of 32,626, Robinson let Corcoran face Pittsburgh closer Mike Gonzalez, even with potential pinch-hitters Matt LeCroy, Marlon Anderson, Robert Fick and Daryle Ward waiting on the bench.

Robinson made the decision, he said, because he had only two more relievers available in his bullpen: Cordero and Saul Rivera.

“Why would I think about pinch-hitting when I’ve got Rivera and Cordero out there? That’s all I had,” he said. “You have to kind of hold a safety net back there. You just can’t go all-out for nine innings and use everybody you’ve got out there. If we had one more arm out there, certainly [Corcoran] would have been out of the ballgame.”

Corcoran struck out, the Nationals stranded their 14th runner of the night, and the game moved to the bottom of the inning.

Corcoran immediately got into trouble.

He walked leadoff hitter Jason Bay on five pitches, then allowed a single to Sean Casey through the right-side hole. Then came perhaps his biggest mistake. Pinch-hitter Jose Hernandez dropped what was meant to be a sacrifice bunt between the mound and third base, but turned it into a single when neither Corcoran nor Zimmerman went for the ball.

“It wasn’t perfectly placed. It wasn’t miscommunication. It’s just my job to get there,” Corcoran said. “I hesitated. It was bunted a little hard, but I still could have gotten it. That’s the play. I’ve got to get there and get that one.”

The Nationals faced the ultimate jam with the bases loaded and no outs. Though Corcoran managed to strike out Jose Bautista, he left a 1-2 fastball up to Paulino and watched in horror as the ball sailed over a drawn-in outfield for the game-winning hit.

“We’re getting hits late in the game to go ahead,” Zimmerman said. “It just seems like whatever we do, the other team comes back and gets the clutch hit and does something to come back.”

Got a question about the Nats? Mark Zuckerman has the answers. To submit a question, go to the Sports Page.

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