Thursday’s sweep attempt of the Washington Nationals was one of the wildest games of the season. The Nationals (49-53) walked off winners 9-7 on Bryce Harper’s two-run homer, but that was a mere punctuation on the craziness before.
From Mike Winters’ erratic strike zone to the Pirates’ (60-40) three-error blunder-splosion, to the ejections of both managers, to Josh Harrison’s big home run, to the Bucs’ four-run 9th inning tying the game, the pendulum swung rapidly before knocking over Pittsburgh’s domino. Truly, the result could have gone either way, but several miscues gave the W to Washington.
A Comedy of Errors
The Pirates’ defense, such consistent vacuums of the baseball over the first 99 games, frittered away four runs their first inning out in the field. Bryce Harper led off with a hit by pitch, then Steve Lombardozzi reached on a bunt single. Harper got caught between 2nd base and 3rd, but Clint Barmes’ throw plopped off Pedro Alvarez’s glove and into the grass for the first Nationals’ run.
Starter A.J. Burnett was no innocent bystander, though. He gave up an RBI single to next batter Ryan Zimmerman, making it 2-0. Though he retired the next two batters, he then allowed two more singles. Gaby Sanchez’s throwing error and Jordy Mercer’s muffed routine ground ball kept the inning going, but Burnett escaped by getting opposite starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez to ground out.
Getting ‘em Back
Give Burnett and the defense credit: they were just fine for the rest of his start. Over Burnett’s last six innings, he allowed five more hits, no more runs, one walk and five strikeouts. He pitched efficiently, ending on a sparkling 14 groundouts to 3 flyouts.
His quality start offered the Pirates’ offense plenty of time to bite into the early four-run deficit, a difficult task against sub-3.00-ERA Gio Gonzalez. The Bucs collected their hits though. The first run was scored by Gaby Sanchez in the 4th, who hit a leadoff single and came around to score on Burnett’s groundout.
In the 6th, Sanchez again singled off Gonzalez, then Josh Harrison crushed a fastball to center field for his season’s first home run. Suddenly, the Pirates trailed by just one run.
Vin Drops It
Trouble arrived once Burnett exited. Vin Mazzaro walked Roger Bernadina with one out, then gave up a single to Harper to put runners on the corners. Lombardozzi smacked a ground-rule double to left for a two-run Washington lead.
Mazzaro struck out Zimmerman for the second out. Then Adam LaRoche roped a liner to right field. Travis Snider made the correct decision to go all out for the catch and the potential third out, but just missed the grab and LaRoche trotted to 3rd base for a 2-RBI triple. The four-run Nationals lead looked too large to overcome.
Comeback… Then Denied
Not so fast as closer Rafael Soriano wanted to help. The erratic-throwing reliever walked first two batters Neil Walker and Starling Marte. It was go-time, even though the Pirates entered the 9th inning 0-for-12.
Jordy Mercer doubled to center field. First run. Andrew McCutchen struck out on all out-of-zone pitches, but Russell Martin hit a ground-ball single to left. Second run. Left-hander Ian Krol entered to face potential go-ahead run Alvarez, but he walked the slugger. Jose Tabata struck out and gave Josh Harrison the hero’s chance.
Harrison delivered, pounding a single up the middle. Third run. Fourth run. Tie game. Garrett Jones struck out to miss the chance for more, but the Pirates appeared to be in the right spot facing the bottom of the Nationals lineup in the Bottom 9th.
Reliever Bryan Morris gave up a one-out single but drew a ground ball for the second out. But as interim manager Jeff Banister had only three pitchers left and the potential for extra innings, Morris stayed in to face Harper. The 20-year-old phenom destroyed Morris’ slider for his third hit and the game-winner.
The Nationals’ playoff chances remain decidedly down for the count, but Pittsburgh could not deliver the knockout blow. The Pirates’ bullpen has been due to regress and give up more run since half past always; a missed Snider catch and HarperBomb are two quick ways for such regression to form.