With the game barely underway, Gio Gonzalez found himself surrounded by Pirates, backed into the corner of the ring with the end of the round nowhere in sight.
Somehow, he punched his way free. He limited the damage and regained control. The Washington Nationals starter eventually earned the win Sunday as the Pirates lost, 6-2, to the Nationals at PNC Park.
"We had a chance to put him out the door, or at least create some separation early," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of Gonzalez's rough first inning. "We missed that opportunity. He put a foot down."
Tyler Moore and Danny Espinosa put runs on the board against the Pirates, dinging starter Wandy Rodriguez and the bullpen. Espinosa hit a two-run homer off Rodriguez and Moore's homer off Bryan Morris scored three. Wilson Ramos went 3 for 4 with two doubles.
The Nationals went off the rails in a hurry at the start of the game. But Gonzalez salvaged a first inning that could have landed the Nationals in a larger hole.
After Bryce Harper struck out on a check swing to end the first, he argued the call with third-base umpire and crew chief John Hirschbeck, who confirmed the strike on appeal. Hirschbeck eventually ejected Harper.
Starling Marte homered on the first pitch of the game from Gonzalez. Two pitches later, Jordy Mercer was standing on second after a double to right-center field. Andrew McCutchen reached on a throwing error from Ryan Zimmerman, a problem for him this season, and Gaby Sanchez walked to load the bases.
Then Russell Martin struck out swinging, Michael McKenry struck out looking and Brandon Inge grounded out to leave the bases loaded. Gonzalez (3-2) threw 27 pitches, but he averted disaster. The Pirates finished 0 for 9 with runners in scoring position.
"I think you probably saw a little bit of information of why the numbers look like they look," Hurdle said of Gonzalez, who finished third in National League Cy Young voting in 2012 but had a 5.34 ERA entering this start. "You also saw the backside of it, of why he's accomplished what he's been able to accomplish."
Rodriguez (2-2) produced a quality start, allowing three runs in six innings, but it took him 117 pitches. He walked only one batter and struck out seven, but pitched deep into counts and worked around men on base for most of the game.
"I worked very hard [Sunday]," Rodriguez said. "I threw a lot of pitches close to the plate."
Rodriguez improved from his previous outing, when he allowed seven runs in 42/3 innings to the Milwaukee Brewers at Miller Park.
"In Milwaukee, every time I went to the corner, I missed," he said. "[Sunday], I didn't have that problem."
A leadoff walk to Ryan Zimmerman stung Rodriguez in the second. Adam LaRoche's double to right-center field put runners on second and third, and Espinosa's sacrifice fly tied the score at 1-1.
Zimmerman led off the fourth with a single. On a pick-off move to first, Rodriguez balked, sending Zimmerman to second. Espinosa homered on a 2-2 breaking ball, giving the Nationals a 3-1 lead. Hurdle said Rodriguez made an in-game adjustment after the home run that convinced Hurdle to leave Rodriguez in; Rodriguez, though, said he didn't change anything.
After the first, Gonzalez improved. He allowed one hit, a single to Rodriguez, and retired 11 of the 14 batters in the next four innings.
"He locked down his command, the breaking ball came into play," Hurdle said. "Obviously it challenged us."
Gonzalez didn't allow another run until the sixth, when Sanchez reached on an infield single that deflected off Gonzalez's glove. Sanchez scored, barely, on Martin's double to the wall, cutting the Nationals' lead to 3-2.
Moore, who struck out looking in each of his first three at-bats, hit a three-run home run off of Morris in the eighth.
Jose Contreras, 41, made his Pirates debut, striking out two in a scoreless inning. He spent the past 101/2 months recovering from Tommy John surgery.
The Pirates are off today ahead of a two-game interleague series against the Seattle Mariners that starts Tuesday at home.
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG. First Published May 5, 2013 9:00 PM