- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

Joel Hanrahan had been tempting fate for about 10 minutes, bouncing slider after slider in the dirt and trusting catcher Wil Nieves to bail him out.

Finally, Hanrahan threw a slider Nieves couldn’t knock down. And because of it, the Washington Nationals lost yet another game because of their bullpen.

Hanrahan’s wild pitch with two outs and the bases loaded in the ninth inning 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 their 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 when Delwyn Young led off with a single.

After getting Nyjer Morgan to fly out, Hanrahan gave up another single to Freddy Sanchez, then another base hit to Nate McLouth, loading the bases. Hanrahan rebounded to get Brandon Moss to bounce sharply to Nick Johnson, who fired home for the force out and set the stage for Adam LaRoche to do something dramatic.

Turns out Hanrahan took care of the dramatics all by himself. With the count 1-2 on LaRoche, Hanrahan threw another bouncer. The ball squirted through Nieves’ legs, Sanchez came racing home with the go-ahead run and the crowd of 17,854 booed the latest in a never-ending string of Washington bullpen meltdowns.

The Nationals barely mounted a rally in the bottom of the ninth, getting a leadoff single from Willie Harris but then watching Pittsburgh closer Matt Capps get Nieves to ground into a double play and Josh Willingham to hit a towering fly ball to dead center field that landed in McLouth’s glove just short of clearing the fence.

Rarely have the Nationals found themselves in a pitchers’ duel this season, but Wednesday night’s matchup of promising young left-handers raised the prospects for a low-scoring game.

John Lannan and Paul Maholm, each a young lefty asked to take on an ace role for the first time this year, share some similarities. And they pitched quite like one another in this game, with speed and efficiency.

Lannan was forced to escape a few more 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 then 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.

The young Washington ace, though, shook off that gaffe and kept pitching with poise and effectiveness. He kept the Pirates from scoring again through the seventh, turning in a much-needed outing deep into the evening.

Unfortunately for Lannan, Maholm was just as effective, holding the Nationals to one run and four hits over six innings. Washington had some chances to make a dent in Maholm’s armor, putting runners in scoring position in the second, third and fifth innings.

But it required Guzman’s leadoff triple in the fifth, followed by Johnson’s RBI single, for the Nationals to finally break through, tie the game and send it to its inevitable conclusion.

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