John Russell has managed the Pirates with a calm and steady hand all season, and the team has responded to his low-key style with a good brand of baseball.
That style disappeared last night at PNC Park. Russell was a bit too calm, and it cost the Pirates a game.
With the Pirates leading by three runs in the seventh inning, Russell sat and watched and sat and watched and sat and watched. In a scenario almost unheard of in modern-day baseball, Russell stuck with starter Paul Maholm for not one, not two but three home runs. Even that display of power didn't cause Russell to lose confidence in Maholm. Only after Maholm gave up a subsequent single and double did the manager go to the bullpen.
But on this night, the bullpen -- not even superb closer Matt Capps -- could not stem the charge of the light-hitting Nationals.
Although Maholm's pitch count was not high, the seventh inning, in any managerial handbook, is the time to go to the bullpen while holding the lead. It's the way the game is played today. Instead, Russell treated Maholm as if he was a longtime ace and not a young left-hander who came into the game with a 4-5 record.
A starter allowing three home runs in the seventh inning is something that shouldn't happen. It's hard to imagine the last time it did. Managers don't usually sit and watch the way Russell did. After one homer, the bullpen should have been active; after two, Maholm should have been gone.
Russell defended his strategy.
"[Maholm] was throwing the ball great," he said. "He was in complete control of the game."
When it was suggested that a move to the bullpen might have been appropriate after the second home run, Russell said, "[Maholm] was at less than 70 pitches. He was throwing the ball well. The bullpen has been used quite a bit. You can't keep taxing the bullpen."
Maholm had breezed through the first three innings, allowing only a single to Cristian Guzman to open the game. Maholm then gave up four hits over the next three innings, including a homer by Ronnie Belliard in the fifth.
None of that was a hint of what was to come.
Dmitri Young led off the seventh with a home run to left field. After Aaron Boone popped up, Jesus Flores and Belliard hit back-to-back home runs.
Russell still felt Maholm was in control.
After another out, Felipe Lopez singled. He would have scored the go-ahead run on Guzman's ensuing hit, but the ball bounced out of play Lopez had to stop at third as Guzman was awarded a double.
Russell was correct in his hesitancy to go to the bullpen.
John Grabow, who got the final out in the seventh, allowed the Nationals to take the lead in the eighth on a single, a walk and another single.
The Pirates appeared to have the game won when they went ahead in their half of the eighth by scoring twice. That was especially true with Capps coming into the game. He had been successful in all 15 of his save opportunities this season.
Capps, pitching on his third consecutive day, retired the first two Washington batters but gave up a double to Elijah Dukes and a homer -- the Nationals' fifth of the night -- to Lastings Milledge.
The Pirates went down in order in the bottom of the ninth -- Chris Gomez, Nate McLouth and Freddy Sanchez.
It was a bitter loss for the Pirates, who would have moved to within one game of .500 with a win. With two more games coming up against the Nationals, the chance to reach .500 or better was theirs almost for the taking.
No one is thinking .500 today. Not after blowing a lead to a team that came into the game with a 25-40 record, a team that scored six runs in four consecutive losses to San Francisco before coming to PNC Park.
The highlight of the night for the Pirates was the offense of catcher Ryan Doumit, who entered the game having gone 1 for 12 since coming off the disabled list. Doumit homered in the first, doubled in the third, homered in the sixth and doubled and scored in the eighth. He drove in three runs and scored three.
On the other side of the offensive ledger was the play of Adam LaRoche. He was 0 for 4, but it was his final at bat in the eighth inning that was particularly disappointing. He came up with none out, a run in and runners on first and third. He had a chance to break the game open.
Instead he struck out against Charlie Manning, a 28-year-old who had been recalled from the minors less than a month ago.
But in looking back on this game, it won't be the LaRoche strikeout that will be remembered. It will be Russell's insistence in sticking with Maholm through a barrage of three home runs by the Nationals.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .