Bullpen, defense doom Nationals
Ninth-inning wild pitch and fifth-inning error prove costly
WASHINGTON -- It's the same old story when it comes to the Nationals. They play well enough to win, but their bullpen and defense continue to be their Achilles' heel. It happened again on Wednesday as Washington lost to Pittsburgh, 2-1, at Nationals Park.
The score was tied at 1 in the ninth inning when the Nationals brought in closer Joel Hanrahan, who was behind in the count so often that both manager Manny Acta and catcher Wil Nieves went to the mound to calm him down. It didn't work as Hanrahan loaded the bases before Adam LaRoche came to the plate.
"They told me to slow down and take it pitch-by-pitch. Sometimes I get going too fast out there," Hanrahan said. "Wil came up to me and told me I wasn't finishing off my slider because I threw one or two that were up."
It was the slider that betrayed Hanrahan in the end. On a 1-2 pitch to LaRoche, Hanrahan threw one that went under Nieves' glove for a wild pitch, allowing Freddy Sanchez to score from third base.
"I'm throwing my slider. It's a good out-pitch for me. It's my strikeout pitch," Hanrahan said. "Right now, I'm not giving it a chance. They are not swinging at it, and I'm not getting it close to the strike zone. I'm throwing it at 60 feet. That's not going to cut it."
Nieves is known as one of the best blockers at the plate, and he felt he should have come up with the ball.
"I told him to keep the ball down and trust me," Nieves said. "We were trying to keep the ball down to get a groundball. You don't want to hang a slider with a man on third base with less than two outs. You want to pitch it down, and he's always done it. I'm always paying attention and anticipating that I have to block it."
It looked like the Nationals would at least tie the game in the bottom of the ninth inning. Pirates closer Matt Capps was looking to finish the game, and he got two quick outs. Josh Willingham then came to the plate as a pinch-hitter for Hanrahan. Willingham fell behind in the count, 0-2, but he battled back to work the count to 2-2. On the sixth pitch of the at-bat, Willingham hit a fastball deep to center field.
Acta thought the ball was out of the park. As it was in the air, Acta was thinking about what the next hitter, Cristian Guzman, told him earlier in the inning.
"He said, 'I'm going to hit one out and win the game,'" Acta recalled.
But before Acta knew it, Pirates center fielder Nate McLouth made the catch against the wall.
"I knew it was going to be close," Willingham said. "It was a pitch that was kind of down on the outside part of the plate. I think I put as good a swing on it as I could. Right off the bat, I thought it had a good shot."
Washington has lost seven straight games, dropping its record to 11-28.
Nationals starter John Lannan lasted seven innings and gave up one run on seven hits. It was his fifth quality start of the season, but he ended up with his fourth no-decision.
The run Lannan gave up was scored in the fourth inning, and it wasn't his fault. With Andy LaRoche on first base, Jack Wilson doubled down the third-base line. As the ball caromed off the wall, LaRoche was rounding third and heading home.
Washington left fielder Adam Dunn picked up the ball and made a weak throw to the infield. The ball bounced past shortstop Guzman, second baseman Ronnie Belliard and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, allowing LaRoche to score.
Dunn was charged with an error for allowing Wilson to go to third.
"[Dunn] missed the cutoff man on that one," Acta said. "If they want the 40 home runs, the 100 RBIs and a .400 on-base percentage, you also know he is not Torii Hunter [in the outfield]. Dunn works hard and he gives us his best, but, here and there, he is going to be short defensively."
The play was another example of how Washington has struggled defensively this season. The Nationals have made 43 errors, the most in Major League Baseball.
"It's too bad, because it reflects on us -- the coaching staff," Acta said. "Defensively, we are not getting it done. It's not because of lack of effort. For some reason, they are not playing good defense. You just have to keep working."
The Nationals tied the score in the bottom of the fifth off left-hander Paul Maholm. After Guzman tripled with one out, Nick Johnson followed with a single to left field.
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.