After Bryce Harper was ejected for arguing a check-swing strike-call in the first, Starling Marte—in the same fashion as his first career at-bat last July—hammered the first pitch he saw from Washington starter Gio Gonzalez to the left-field bleachers, staking the Pirates to an immediate 1-0 lead.
From there, Jordy Mercer doubled to right-center, Andrew McCutchen reached on a rare error by Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, and Gaby Sanchez walked. The events left the bases loaded with no outs and Pirate hitters already pushing Gonzalez to the ropes.
But Gonzalez struck out Russell Martin and Michael McKenry, and then induced a groundout to short from Brandon Inge. The inning ended with the Pirates failing to capitalize on a golden chance to stake starter Wandy Rodriguez to an emphatic early lead, a failure that changed the complexion of the rest of the game as the Pirates never truly threatened Washington again.
The missed opportunity also prevented the Pirates from getting to one of baseball’s better pitchers early on in the game, something manager Clint Hurdle wants his unit to do when a starter of Gonzalez’s quality takes the hill.
“We had a chance to push him out the door, at least create some separation early and we missed that opportunity,” Hurdle said. “He put a foot down; all we had was Wandy’s single until the sixth inning after we get hits from our first two hitters.”
Gonzalez (3-2) settled in after he danced out of first-inning danger as he allowed just three hits and one run over the next five innings. Gonzalez’s day ended after six innings total with the Pirates touching him for two runs on five hits and two walks.
“He locked down his command, the breaking ball came into play,” Hurdle said. “Obviously it challenged us.”
With the Pirates offense in check the Nationals’ offense battled back to tie the game in the second inning with a sacrifice fly by Danny Espinosa to score Zimmerman—who reached on a lead-off walk. Espinosa gave Washington the lead for good in the fourth with his third home run of the season, a two-run shot to left to score Zimmerman and himself.
“I tried to go in, but I missed my spot and he hit a home run,” Rodriguez said.
After the home run by Espinosa, Rodriguez (2-3) managed to last another two innings despite already having thrown 80 pitches through four innings. Wandy finished after six and allowed three runs on six hits with seven strikeouts while throwing 117 pitches.
Despite a rough day, Hurdle gave credit to Rodriguez for keeping the Pirates in the game.
“At the end of the day, he walked out and gave us a chance to win the game—six innings, three runs,” Hurdle said. “
When Hurdle turned the ball to the bullpen, Jose Contreras made his first appearance of the season and worked a scoreless seventh inning and struck out two.
But in the eighth Bryan Morris was responsible for the proverbial dagger in the Pirates’ coffin Sunday as Tyler Moore took a 2-2 pitch from the Pirate reliever over the left field wall for a three-run home run that left the Nationals up 6-2 with only six outs left for Pittsburgh to work with.
The home run came after a decision made to intentionally walk first baseman Adam LaRoche which Hurdle attributed to LaRoche hitting the ball well all weekend against left-handed pitching.
“He’d been on base all weekend against left-handed pitching, he was seeing the ball [well],” Hurdle said. “We figured we’d go right-on-right and see how that played out, it didn’t work out very well.”
Pittsburgh got something going in the sixth inning against Gonzalez when Sanchez led off with a single and Martin doubled to bring Sanchez around. Martin’s RBI cut Washington’s lead in half to 3-2, and the Pirates owned a runner in scoring position with no men out in the inning.
But the Pirates missed another golden opportunity as McKenry popped out to shallow center-field and Inge and John McDonald followed with groundouts.
The three outs in the sixth started a stretch in which National pitchers retired 10 Pirate batters in a row, lasting from the sixth inning to the ninth inning when Inge rolled a one-out double down the left-field line.
Rafael Soriano then retired Garrett Jones on a pop-out in foul territory to Zimmerman, and Travis Snider ended the game on a groundout to Ian Desmond at shortstop.