The mood in the Pirates' clubhouse yesterday afternoon seemed as hollow as the adjacent stalls of Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, deliberately left vacant by the equipment staff.
As catcher Ryan Doumit put it, "From the human element of it, it's tough for everybody. Those guys were my friends. But, from the professional standpoint, this is the business we signed up for. Trades happen. You've got to try to knuckle up."
By evening's end, after a 5-4 edging of the Washington Nationals at PNC Park that, hit by hit, gradually enlivened a crowd of 23,363, the mood within the team had lightened, too.
"That was fun, man," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said.
"After everything that's happened, all the skepticism, everyone wondering where we're headed, yeah, it was nice," manager John Russell said.
Nice for quite a few, actually: Lastings Milledge had two RBI singles in his Pittsburgh debut, Steve Pearce homered and doubled, Ross Ohlendorf pitched a third consecutive quality start, Andy LaRoche made two defensive gems, and Matt Capps put down his 21st save.
The buildup, really, began some 90 minutes before the first pitch, when general manager Neal Huntington addressed the full squad behind closed doors about the recent trades and the franchise's future.
"I told them this is the group we want to have moving forward," Huntington said upon emerging. "Now, does that mean we're going to have the exact same 25-man roster a year from now? The day I stop trying to improve the team is the day I stop doing my job. But I wanted them to know how we feel about them and how strongly we feel about where we're going."
• Game: Pirates vs. Washington Nationals, 7:05 p.m., PNC Park.
• TV, radio: : FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
• Pitching: RHP Virgil Vasquez (1-5, 6.21) vs. RHP Craig Stammen (3-5, 4.46).
• Key matchup: Stammen, a pitcher the Pirates tried to acquire in the Nyjer Morgan/Sean Burnett trade, held them to one hit through six innings May 21 in Washington before they chased him with four runs in the seventh.
• Of note: The Pirates are 15-3 in front of crowds of 20,000 or larger, 6-0 with 30,000 or more.
To that end, Huntington broke down for the players every major trade he has made, pointing out that nine players -- including seven who would have been free agents -- returned 19 players to the Pirates, most of those into a minor league system that he told them was "being flooded with talent," including through the draft and Latin America.
"These guys have an opportunity to be part of this, and that was my main message," Huntington said. "If not, we'll have people pushing them from behind."
Players were asked if they had questions or wanted to speak up in any way, and none did.
Russell also spoke briefly.
"It's time to move on," he said of his message to the players. "These guys have a great opportunity to show they want to be a part of what's going on now and in the future in Pittsburgh. This is the time. We want to start adding to this team, not taking away. Now, it's time to turn the page and start playing winning baseball."
Some players evidently tuned in.
"It was good start off on a good foot after everything Neal said," Pearce said after the game. "It's a big opportunity for me, too, and I want to make the most of it."
The Pirates built a 4-1 lead off Washington's John Lannan through four innings: LaRoche's two-out RBI single brought a 1-1 tie. Three consecutive singles in the third, including Milledge's RBI laser up the middle, scored two more runs. And Pearce lined a 2-2 slider into the bleachers in the fourth for his first home run.
Ryan Zimmerman's solo blast to open the seventh pulled Washington within two, and a single and walk prompted Russell to lift Ohlendorf. Jesse Chavez retired both batters he faced, one on LaRoche's over-the-dugout-railing grab of a popup.
Earlier, LaRoche made a breathtaking barehanded play to thwart Nyjer Morgan's bunt-single attempt in the sixth, yet another sign of LaRoche's growing defensive stature.
"Perry's been working a lot with me," he said of infield instructor Perry Hill, "and I take a lot of pride in it."
Ohlendorf would be charged with two runs over 6 1/3 innings in improving to 9-8, and he credited that to pitching coach Joe Kerrigan altering his delivery to raise his hands above his head.
"I felt more relaxed," Ohlendorf said. "My arms were more fluid, and it enabled me to throw where I wanted."
Milledge's second RBI single came in the seventh, following a McCutchen double, and the Pirates led, 5-2.
McCutchen and Milledge, the top two in Russell's new order, went a combined 4 for 7 with a walk, two runs and two RBIs.
"It was fun out there," Milledge said. "I wouldn't say there were any nerves at all. I'm relaxed. This isn't like any feeling I've had when coming up to the majors, even in New York. I feel like I deserve to be here. I wasn't in the minor leagues with a chip on my shoulder this team. I was doing my work."
The bullpen still had work, too.
Joel Hanrahan gave up two runs in the eighth, but Evan Meek bailed him out by freezing Josh Willingham on a sharp curve.
Capps, entrusted with a 5-4 lead, looked dominant in freezing his first two batters on 95-mph heat, but two singles put him into a jam until Nyjer Morgan popped up to short to end it.
Morgan acknowledged being "a little bit excited" in having a chance to beat his former team.
"My emotions ... I think they left after the first at-bat, but they came back for that last at-bat," he said. "I kind of got out of my element, but I just wanted to do something special."
For the Pirates ...
"This was a fun, exciting game," LaRoche said. "Hey, nobody really knows what to expect from this team. We could surprise a lot of people. Who knows? We'll see where we go from here."