When you go just 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position, you can make any pitching staff look like All-Stars, and one hot player on the other team can make even the best hurlers look ordinary.
Such was the case in Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Andrew McCutchen went 4-for-4 with a home run, drove in two runs and scored twice, and five Pittsburgh relievers held the Nats to just five hits after starter Erik Bedard left the game with an injury in the top of the second inning. The result left the Nats with a three-game losing streak and assured them of their second series loss of the season, after winning eight of the first nine.
McCuthen’s hitting and baserunning keyed a frustrating third inning for Nats starter Ross Detwiler (L-3-2), who allowed seven hits, three runs and no walks in six innings, striking out four. Reliever Brad Lincoln got it started with one out when he struck out, but the ball caromed off Wilson Ramos‘ chest protector and he could not find it, allowing Lincoln to take first on the passed ball. Jose Tabata followed with a shot off Detwiler’s foot that caromed into right field for a base hit, and a slow reaction by Danny Espinosa allowed Lincoln to take third on the play.
Neil Walker and McCutchen then followed with consecutive singles to right that plated the first two Pirates runs, and McCutchen added the third by using his speed to take advantage of an indecision by Ian Desmond. With two outs and McCutchen on second, Casey McGahee hit a high chop to Desmond at short, with no play at first, Desmond double clutched when McCutchen appeared to hit the brakes rounding third, then took off for home after Desmond’s hesitation. Desmond fired home too late and too high for Ramos to tag the sliding McCutchen.
That was really all the offensive support Lincoln (W, 2-0) and the rest of the Pittsburgh Bullpen would really need. The Nats finally picked up their first hit and first run in the fourth inning on an RBI single by Xavier Nady. Bryce Harper walked and took third on a Pittsburgh error. The Pirates were in a heavy shift for left-handed hitting cleanup man Adam LaRoche, with third baseman Pedro Alvarez in shallow right field and only the shortstop Clint Barmes on the left side of the infield. LaRoche hit it right into the shift, but Alvarez misplayed the ball and Harper, running on the pitch, took third. Nady followed with a single to make it 3-1.
Detwiler settled down, blanking the Pirates through the sixth, while the Nats tacked on another run in the seventh on a pinch-hit sacrifice fly by Chad Tracy to score Espinosa, who led off with a double and took third on a wild pitch.
After Craig Stammen pitched a perfect seventh, the Nats had a chance to take the lead in the eighth when Ryan Zimmerman doubled and Pirates reliever Jason Grili followed an intentional walk to LaRoche with another free pass to Roger Bernadina, loading the bases. But Espinosa and Tracy struck out to end the inning.
MuCutchen then gave the Pirates a two-run cushion by belting a 2-2 pitch from Stammen into the left-center field stands for his second homer of the season and series.
That Nationals put the winning run at the plate in the ninth when former National Joel Hanrahan hit Steve Lombardozzi with one out and Desmond followed with a double to right. But unlike Tuesday night, the Pittsburgh closer came through in the clutch, inducing a popup from Bryce Harper and striking out Zimmerman on a 3-2 pitch to end the game.
Champ of the Game: Desmond, who was 2-for-5 with a solen base and doubled to keep the Nats alive in the ninth. Unfortunately, his hesitation against McCuthern in the third cost the Nats a key run. No one else had more than one run for the Nats.
For the Pirates, McCutchen showed why he flies under the radar in Steel City.
Chump of the Game: Lots of candidates here, but it goes to Espinosa, who stranded five of the Nats’ baserunners, striking out twice. Opponents know he can’t hit the breaking ball, so that’s all he sees. It seems like the only think keeping him in the lineup is injuries to other players. Honorable mention goes to Zimmerman, who stranded four runners and struck out with the tying run on base, and Ramos, whose passed ball started the Pirates’ big inning.
For Pittsburgh, Alvarez as 0-for-4, stranded four runners and made the error that led to the Nats’ first run.
Unsung Hero: Harper, who made a sliding catch in right field, drew a clutch walk in the eighth and ran the bases smartly.
For the Pirates, Lincoln turned in three solid innings of relief on short notice, allowing just one hit, an unearned run and one walk with four strikeouts.