Pirates fall flat against Nationals
For a while Sunday, the Pirates were poised to rout the Washington Nationals.
The Nationals' best hitter was ejected before the game was five minutes old, and their starting pitcher was on the ropes in the first inning. The Pirates needed one hit to break it open.
It never happened.
The Nationals overcame a rocky start and used homers by Danny Espinosa and Tyler Moore to cruise past the Pirates, 6-2.
In the first inning, the Nationals seemed on the verge of imploding. Bryce Harper was ejected by third base umpire John Hirschbeck for grousing after a checked-swing strikeout. It was the first ejection this year for Harper and second of his career.
In the bottom of the inning, the Pirates' offense got off to a great start.
Starling Marte homered on the first pitch thrown by Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez (3-2). It was a rocket, and Marte went into his trot the instant the ball left his bat.
“I knew I got it,” Marte said.
Jordy Mercer doubled off the center-field wall. Andrew McCutchen reached on a throwing error. Gaby Sanchez walked on four pitches.
Bases loaded, nobody out, one run in and the crowd of 24,186 was buzzing.
“We had a chance to push (Gonzalez) out the door, or at least create some separation,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
And then ... pffffffffft.
Gonzalez had thrown a total of five pitches to Marte, Mercer and McCutchen. Catcher Wilson Ramos saw what was up and changed strategy.
“They were hacking,” Gonzalez said. “(Ramos) saw them being aggressive, and he slowed it down. That's what kept me in the game.”
Russell Martin struck out swinging. Michael McKenry went down looking. Brandon Inge grounded out.
“It's frustrating, but you've got to move on,” Mercer said.
The turnaround buoyed the Nationals.
“After I got those three outs, you see the dugout get lit up with joy and excitement,” Gonzalez said. “You could see it felt like the momentum shifted.”
The Nationals tied it in the second against Wandy Rodriguez (2-2). Ryan Zimmerman walked, went to third on Adam LaRoche's double and scored on Espinosa's sacrifice fly to deep center.
Zimmerman began the fourth with a single to right field. He went to second on a balk and scored on Espinosa's two-out homer.
“It was a curveball right down the middle,” Rodriguez said. “I tried to go in, but I missed my spot.”
Hurdle said Rodriguez made “an in-game adjustment” after the homer. Rodriguez worked six innings and threw a whopping 117 pitches, facing a lot of deep counts but only walking one.
“His two-strike put-away pitch is not where we want it to be,” Hurdle said. “We have to remind him of things from time to time. He knows how to pitch. He needs to use all three pitches from the start.”
Rodriguez, however, said he pitched the same throughout the game and used his entire arsenal.
Meanwhile, Gonzalez settled in. After Mercer's double, Gonzalez gave up just one hit — a well-struck single by Rodriguez in the second inning. Gonzalez retired seven in a row from the third until the sixth, when Sanchez reached on an infield single that deflected off Gonzalez's glove.
Martin followed with an RBI double. The relay throw beat Sanchez to the plate, but Ramos didn't make the catch on the hop.
The Nationals put the game away with three runs in the eighth off Bryan Morris. Roger Bernadina — who replaced Harper after the ejection — singled. LaRoche was intentionally walked, and Moore hit his first homer of the season.