PITTSBURGH | The Washington Nationals had no trouble putting men on base Saturday night. They just couldn’t drive enough of those men in.
The Pittsburgh Pirates faced no such dilemma. They just relied on dynamic rookie outfielder Andrew McCutchen to supply all the offense they needed.
On a night when Washington couldn’t buy a clutch hit, McCutchen smashed three home runs, almost single-handedly dealing the Nationals an 11-6 loss that should have been a far more competitive ballgame.
Had the Nationals simply taken advantage of the 19 baserunners they amassed against a Pittsburgh pitching staff that was ripe for a beating, they might have had a chance of spoiling McCutchen’s night. Instead, baseball’s worst team was forced to sit there and watch as a Pirates club that was dismantled earlier in the week turned to its new young guns to topple the Nationals for the second straight game.
“That’s a night where we’ve got to score more runs,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “That’s got to translate into more than [six] runs. We just left too many runners out there. Didn’t get the big hit.”
Opportunities abounded for Washington, which put at least two men on base in five of the first six innings but emerged with only four runs during that span. There were a smattering of clutch hits - an Adam Dunn double, a Josh Bard single, a Cristian Guzman double that extended the shortstop’s streak of consecutive games with an RBI to a Nationals-record seven - but not nearly enough.
“Oh my god, yeah, we definitely had the opportunities,” center fielder Nyjer Morgan said. “I think we left like 19 guys in scoring position. It’s just one of those things we have to clean up, getting guys in from scoring position.”
Perhaps if the Nationals had a raw talent such as McCutchen in their lineup, the outcome might have been different. The 11th overall pick in a loaded 2005 draft that has produced All-Stars Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Justin Upton, this 22-year-old outfielder has burst onto the scene the past two months.
The Nationals had to have a hunch this might be a long night when McCutchen stepped to the plate in the first and lofted a moon shot off the top of the left-field fence for his first homer. Starter Craig Stammen shook that blast off and hunkered down, but the rookie right-hander came unglued soon thereafter. He allowed two more runs in the third, both scoring on a Lastings Milledge double, then served up consecutive hits to the first three men he faced in the fourth.
That was all Riggleman could take. Riggleman, who has flashed more visible signs of frustration and disgust from the dugout railing the past two weeks than Manny Acta showed in 2 1/2 years, yanked his young starter and entrusted what was still a competitive ballgame to his bullpen.
“I didn’t really throw too many competitive pitches out there, and I got beat that way,” Stammen said. “But I had a pitching coach a long time ago tell me that these outings happen at every level. They’re embarrassing, and they’re unacceptable. But you’ve got to learn to bounce back from it and deal with it.”
Tyler Clippard became McCutchen’s second victim when he served up a two-run laser into the left-field bleachers. Two innings later, Logan Kensing spun around in horror as McCutchen did it again, lacing a three-run shot that made it 11-4 and brought the crowd of 26,855 to its feet.
Those fans refused to sit down until the young phenom emerged from the dugout to doff his cap and accept a curtain call.
“He’s a special breed,” said Morgan, who spent years playing alongside McCutchen in the Pirates’ farm system. “He’s one of the most special talents I’ve seen ever since I’ve been in the game.”
The fans were back on their feet in the eighth when McCutchen came to bat one last time seeking home run No. 4. At long last, though, a Washington pitcher figured out how to retire the kid: Lefty Ron Villone coaxed a 6-4-3 double play out of McCutchen and spared the Nationals from such indignity.
As if another lopsided loss to a franchise well on its way to a record-setting 17th straight losing season wasn’t tough enough to swallow.