WASHINGTON -- The Pirates spent eight innings clawing back from a four-run hole their lackluster defense created early in the game.
Bryce Harper made those efforts meaningless with one swing of the bat.
Harper, the Nationals' budding young star, hit his first career walk-off home run as the Nationals beat the Pirates, 9-7, Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park. His ninth-inning homer capped a wild game that featured 16 runs, 26 hits, three Pirates errors and two managerial ejections.
"It was kind of like pickup basketball," manager Clint Hurdle said. "They had the ball last."
The loss kept the Pirates (60-40) from claiming their first four-game road sweep since 1997. The win snapped a six-game losing skid for the Nationals (49-53), once considered a favorite to compete for a World Series title.
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Harper drove a 1-1 cutter from Pirates reliever Bryan Morris into the left-center field stands for his 14th home run this season. Morris said he threw the cutter because he used it to retire the left fielder Tuesday night.
"Right now, my memory is kind of foggy over where the location was," Morris said of his pitch Thursday. "I'm going to say probably not [where I wanted] because he got more of the barrel on it than I wanted him to."
Josh Harrison, making his second start this season, drove in four runs, including two that tied the score, 7-7, with two out and two strikes in the ninth.
"We never quit," Harrison said. "There's a lot of fight in us. We know it's never over until the last out."
With the bases loaded, Harrison smoked a liner to center as Jordy Mercer and Russell Martin raced home to cap a four-run ninth.
Harrison also hit an earlier two-run homer, his first since Aug. 4, 2012.
The Nationals scored three runs off reliever Vin Mazzaro in the eighth, making the Pirates' ninth-inning rally more improbable.
The Pirates now move on to the third leg of their three-city, 10-game road trip. They are 4-3 heading into Miami for a three-game series that starts tonight.
But, for a while, it looked like they took their defensive talents to South Beach a day early.
The Pirates defense hemorrhaged runs in the first, committing three errors -- including two with two outs -- as the Nationals took a 4-0 lead. Of those four runs, only one was charged as an earned run against starter A.J. Burnett.
"That's part of baseball," Burnett said. "Those are mistakes that happen. It's not like guys are out there trying to make it happen. They realized that it didn't faze me, and it shouldn't faze them."
It was the second consecutive start for Burnett in which he gave up four runs, three of them unearned, in the first.
"It just stinks that it always seems like he's on the mound when it happens," said Gaby Sanchez, who went 3 for 3 and scored twice. "We have a short-term memory. There's nothing else you can do. You have to have a short-term memory in this game when things go rough because it's going to happen. The good teams are ones that are able to just shrug it off."
The Pirates are 15-24 in games this season in which they commit at least one error.
"Our worst inning on the field this season," said Hurdle, who was tossed from the game in the seventh while arguing a call in which Pedro Alvarez was tagged out at first when umpire Laz Diaz ruled he turned toward second.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson was tossed in the fifth after Ian Desmond struck out looking on a pitch that appeared out of the strike zone. Washington squandered a bases-loaded, no-outs opportunity in that inning.
TV cameras caught Burnett and Hurdle having a spirited discussion in the dugout after that inning when Burnett escaped from that jam.
"We were strategizing," Hurdle said flatly.
Burnett said he thought he was done for the afternoon, but Hurdle told him to prepare to hit if the Pirates couldn't generate offense by the time his turn to bat came up.
"He deals with me pretty good," Burnett said. "It's not always easy. Not with me."
His counterpart, Gio Gonzalez, allowed three runs on eight hits in 52/3 innings, throwing 119 pitches in an inefficient outing. He did not earn the win, but he remained undefeated in four career starts against the Pirates.
The loss prevented the Pirates from grabbing their best record at the 100-game milepost since 1975, when they won 62 games. As it stands, their 60-40 record is the best since the 1991 club shared that same record after 100 games.
Michael Sanserino: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 25, 2013 8:30 PM