Joel Hanrahan had been tempting fate for about 10 minutes, bouncing slider after slider in the dirt and hoping catcher Wil Nieves would bail him out each time.
It was perhaps a dangerous strategy in the ninth inning of a tie ballgame with the bases loaded, but Nieves walked to the mound and told the Washington Nationals closer to keep going back to that pitch and not be afraid to bounce it.
“Trust me,” Nieves told him. “I can block it.”
Three times Hanrahan threw a slider in the dirt, and three times Nieves knocked it down. But the fourth time it happened, the ball squirted through the catcher’s legs and rolled to the backstop, and the Nationals were left to ponder yet another loss punctuated by poor relief pitching.
Hanrahan’s wild pitch with two outs and the bases loaded Wednesday night proved the difference in Washington’s 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was a rare, tense, pitchers’ duel for the Nationals, but the end result was all too familiar for a club that finds a way to leave everything on the shoulders of its beleaguered bullpen and continues to suffer for it.
Washington relievers are now a combined 1-15 for the season and have played a major role in the seven-game losing streak this team has produced to open an 11-game homestand.
Like so many before it, this game was there for the Nationals’ taking. But unable to score more than one run against the Pirates’ pitching staff, they entered the ninth with the game knotted 1-1.
Manager Manny Acta decided to bring in Hanrahan since any possibility of a save situation was now gone, but the struggling closer immediately got himself into trouble by loading the bases on three singles. The right-hander nearly escaped the jam, getting a force out at the plate for the inning’s second out but setting the stage for the game to be decided by Pirates first baseman Adam LaRoche.
Turns out Hanrahan took care of the dramatics all by himself. Knowing he didn’t have complete command of his slider but also knowing LaRoche was susceptible to the pitch, Hanrahan kept throwing it. But with the count 1-2, he threw another 58-footer. Freddy Sanchez came racing home with the go-ahead run.
“It’s a good out pitch for me. It’s my strikeout pitch,” Hanrahan said. “And right now, I’m just not giving it a chance. They’re not swinging at it, and I’m not getting it close to the strike zone. Every one of them I’m throwing 60 feet, and that’s not going to cut it.”
The Nationals nearly mounted a game-tying rally in the bottom of the inning when Josh Willingham hit a towering fly ball to deep center field. But Nate McLouth caught it about one foot shy of clearing the fence, ending the game.
“Brand-new ballgame, that’s what I was thinking,” Acta said. “But it didn’t go. It doesn’t seem like anything’s going right for us right now, but they keep battling.”
The late dramatics came after lefties John Lannan and Paul Maholm traded excellent outings.
Lannan was forced to escape a few jams early on, but he posted nothing but zeroes on the board until the fourth, when the Pirates broke the deadlock in large part because of a defensive miscue behind the pitcher.
With a runner on first and two outs, Jack Wilson scorched a double down the left-field line. Third base coach Tony Beasley, who held the same position with the Nationals in 2006, waived Andy LaRoche around, a move that looked surprising at the time but paid off because left fielder Adam Dunn couldn’t even reach cutoff man Cristian Guzman from 100 feet away.
Dunn’s throw short-hopped Guzman, skipped by the shortstop and rolled past both Ronnie Belliard and Ryan Zimmerman. By the time Nieves retrieved it, LaRoche had scored standing up, Wilson was on third and Lannan was charged with a run that wasn’t really his fault.
“I didn’t want it to sail on me and go off, so I made sure I got it down,” Dunn said. “It wasn’t a great throw.”
That was the only run Lannan allowed in seven innings. Unfortunately for him, Maholm was just as effective, holding the Nationals to one run and four hits over six innings.
Thus the game remained tied much of the evening before it ended in a fashion too familiar to the Nationals.
“I’m just tired of talking about losses, period,” Dunn said. “I’m not making excuses, but you can only say the same thing over and over and over before you get fed up with it. And that’s kind of what’s going on right now.”