WASHINGTON - There was no way, John Grabow understood, that a 0.00 figure would survive under his ERA column all summer.
"You hate to give it up in a situation like this."
Those were his words shortly after his slightly misplaced pitch allowed Austin Kearns' tiebreaking, eighth-inning single in the Pirates' 3-2 loss to Washington last night in their inaugural visit to Nationals Park.
And those words were just about all that was being spoken in perhaps the quietest postgame clubhouse setting of the young season.
"It's a tough one for us," starter Zach Duke said.
Easy to see why.
It had felt like anybody's ballgame all evening and, by the eighth, the scoreboard supported that: Duke and the Nationals' Odalis Perez each pitched seven solid innings, and each gave way to the bullpen with a 2-2 tie.
- Box scores
- Game: Pirates vs. Washington Nationals, 7:35 p.m., Nationals Park.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
- Pitching: LHP Phil Dumatrait (0-1, 3.92) vs. LHP John Lannan (2-2, 2.64).
- Key matchup: The Pirates face Lannan, 23, for the first time. Gifted with a wide arsenal if not great velocity, he is fresh off seven shutout innings vs. the Chicago Cubs and has not been scored upon in his past 19 innings.
- Of note: If the Pirates win tonight, it will be the 9,400th victory in franchise history. Only the Giants (10,197), Cubs (10,003), Braves (9,708) and Dodgers (9,480) have more.
Grabow took the mound for the eighth, taking with him the best numbers of any left-handed reliever in Major League Baseball. In addition to not allowing a run in 14 appearances, opponents were batting .163 without an extra-base hit, and he had 12 strikeouts to two walks.
But trouble took seed right away when Cristian Guzman singled down the right-field line.
Nick Johnson was next and, after getting a close call from home plate umpire Gary Cederstrom that ran the count full rather than ringing him up, he was hit by a pitch to put men at first and second.
"It might have been a little off the plate," Grabow said of the call. "When you're the type of hitter Johnson is, you're going to get that."
Johnson, a machine at drawing walks, has a career .396 on-base percentage.
Next was Lastings Milledge, and Grabow regained form by striking him out.
But the first offering to Kearns, that patented changeup on the outside corner designed to get right-handed batters to roll over the ball, backfired.
"It stayed up," Grabow said. "If I had gotten it down a little, I might have gotten him."
And another thing ...
"He was waiting for it. No question in my mind, from the way he hit it."
It was poked into shallow right, where Xavier Nady smoothly scooped it up and fired on a line to catcher Ryan Doumit, but not in time for a play on the speedy Guzman.
Jon Rauch, in his first appearance as Washington's closer after Chad Cordero went to the disabled list, had a 1-2-3 ninth to finish off the Pirates.
"It was fun while it lasted," Grabow said of the perfect ERA, "but the big thing is my giving up that run and us losing the game. I pride myself on keeping our team close, on keeping things clean, and I was a little erratic."
No question: Only 12 of his 21 pitches were strikes.
Duke remained 0-2, still winless since last June, but he turned in his finest performance in limiting Washington to five hits. He had given up eight or more in all of his first five starts.
The difference, all concerned said, was command of the fastball. His stuff was no faster or more dynamic than usual, but it zipped to its destination. Against left-handed batters, for example, he was effective, perhaps for the first time this year, in getting them to chase heat down and away.
"When I'm executing pitches, that's a big pitch for me," Duke said. "It tells me I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing."
He allowed only one hit in his final five innings.
"I thought Zach threw the ball really well," manager John Russell said. "He got into a good rhythm out there."
Duke did make one clear mistake, though, and it cost him his only runs: With men at second and third and the No. 8 hitter, Wil Nieves, at the plate, he missed with his first two pitches, then came directly across the plate with a fastball that was rifled through a drawn-in infield for a 2-0 Washington lead.
"I wanted to go at him with my best, but I got a little too much of the plate," Duke said.
The Pirates struck plenty of balls with authority against Perez but achieved only three hits. He relied almost entirely on offspeed stuff, and not without cause: Two of those three hits were solo home runs off lifeless fastballs, by Freddy Sanchez in the fourth and Doumit in the seventh.
Sanchez's home run was his first, Doumit's his fifth and, most striking, his second from the right side. Only three of his 26 career home runs are from that side.
The latter tied the score at 2-2, but that would be it for the Pirates' offense a day after scoring 13 runs in New York.
"I thought we swung the bats OK," Russell said. "It would have been nice for some of those balls to fall."
The last-place Nationals have won six of seven.
Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at email@example.com. First Published May 2, 2008 4:00 AM