Pirates see one jam too many in 11th-inning loss

Johnson's bases-loaded double lifts Nationals, 8-4

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

The Pirates' Jason Bay slides safely under the tag of Nationals catcher Robert Fick as part of a three-run first inning.

By Dejan Kovacevic, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

At some point this weekend, it seemed inevitable, the Pirates would succumb to their pitchers being surrounded all the time.

How could they not?

The Washington Nationals put 19 men on base Friday, scored only four runs, lost.

They put 21 more on base Saturday, scored six times, lost.

And yesterday, all the stops were pulled when 21 more runners reached, four stole bases, two were sacrificed along and still, finally, after nearly four hours of further frustration, it took Nick Johnson's bases-loaded double in the 11th to break the Pirates, 8-4, on a steamy afternoon at PNC Park.

"They put a lot of men on base in this series," manager Jim Tracy said of the Nationals. "And we were working our way out of trouble a lot."

Successfully, too.

And it looked as if Roberto Hernandez might add to the list of escapes in the 11th.

Pinch-hitter Marlon Anderson opened with a double to right-center field, then took third when Alfonso Soriano, a premier power hitter who had hit his 29th home run and two singles to that point, put down a bunt to the left of the mound.

Surprised, anyone?

"I didn't expect him to bunt there," Hernandez said.

Neither did Washington manager Frank Robinson, apparently.

"I haven't recovered from the shock yet," he said. "He's trying to help the ballclub win and get that guy to third base. But he has to realize how tough it's been for us to get that guy in. ... I wanted him to take a shot there."

Soriano would reach, anyway.

Hernandez scooped up the ball quickly, but he failed to see he had an easy out in Anderson, who was a little more than halfway to third. This despite catcher Ronny Paulino shouting to him, "Third! Third! Third!"

"I had my mind made up I was going to first," Hernandez said.

Worse, he threw low to first base, and Sean Casey could not corral it.

"A horrible palm ball," Hernandez called it.

He bounced back to strike out Felipe Lopez, and Tracy ordered an intentional walk of Jose Vidro that filled the bases to set up the double play.

Johnson was next and, although he had struck out with men at the corners in the ninth, Washington outfielder Jose Guillen disagreed with Tracy's move to pitch to him in that situation.

"I told the guys, 'That is a big mistake,' " Guillen said. "Nick doesn't swing at any of those bad pitches. He was going to put the ball in play."

True to that prediction, Johnson worked the count full, forcing Hernandez to go all fastball.

He fouled off the first.

Then another.

Then two more.

Finally, he sized up one he liked -- 94 mph, but up and over the plate -- and launched it to the edge of the left-field fence to put Washington up, 6-4.

A two-run double by Guillen off Victor Santos added to the lead, and the Pirates had several earlier chances to wrap up what would have been a satisfying three-game sweep coming out of the All-Star break. But Hernandez, scored upon in five of his past eight outings, blamed himself.

"I didn't do my job," he said. "I went out there and battled, but they ended up with the upper hand."

The Pirates leapt to a three-run lead in the first on Freddy Sanchez's broken-bat RBI single into center and Casey's two-run shot up the middle, but Livan Hernandez, one of the game's most durable starters, put up zeroes the next five innings.

In that span, Paul Maholm limited Washington to Soriano's solo shot to left in the third and, as has become the norm, scattered seven baserunners. But he opened the seventh by walking Guillen and, one well-struck out later, pinch-hitter Alex Escobar sent a flat fastball to the bleachers for a 3-3 tie.

Tracy pulled Maholm for Salomon Torres, who narrowly avoided allowing go-ahead run on a fine play behind second base by Jose Castillo.

John Grabow minimized the damage in the eighth, too, leaving men at the corners by fanning Daryle Ward. That kept Washington to one run in that inning, and that would be negated in the bottom half by Castillo's two-out RBI single to left.

Mike Gonzalez stranded runners at the corners in the ninth, as well.

But it was one jam too many, and that was no fluke: The Pirates' pitching staff has allowed opposing hitters to reach base safely 36.9 percent of the time, a figure that topped the Kansas City Royals for highest in Major League Baseball.

Still, perhaps because of the refreshing feel brought by three games of timely pitching and hitting, the Pirates seemed to view the weekend in a generally positive light.

"The good thing is that, earlier in the year, we weren't able to get out of these jams, we weren't getting these big hits, and now we are," catcher Humberto Cota said. "We just couldn't do it today."

"It was a good weekend," Tracy said. "We won a series against a team that has a lot of talent, and the execution, for the most part, was there compared to where we had been. Now, we need to get right back to it tomorrow."

That would be against another struggling opponent, the Colorado Rockies, losers of seven in a row. The Nationals had lost five consecutive before yesterday.

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Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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