Bullpen blows first lead, Nats drop series in Pittsburgh (updated)

PITTSBURGH – The Nationals’ formula for success this season, tried and true through the first 10 games, went awry this afternoon at PNC Park. They got the five-inning start that to date has guaranteed victory, only to watch Patrick Corbin fade in the sixth and one of their most-trusted relievers, Steve Cishek, give up the lead in the seventh.

Throw in their worst defensive showing of the year, and what was shaping up to be a simple win over the Pirates in their series finale instead morphed into a 5-3 loss that devolved rather abruptly on this 42-degree Easter Sunday.

“Those little things, we got to clean up,” said manager Davey Martinez in one of several rare displays of public criticism of his team over the last few days. “We can’t give teams extra outs. We’re not going to win games like that.”

Corbin’s sixth-inning woes turned a three-run lead into a one-run lead. Cishek then gave up three runs himself in the bottom of the seventh, the first time the Nationals’ so-called “A” bullpen has blown a late lead.

There were other mistakes along the way. Third baseman Maikel Franco was charged with three errors, two of them on one play. The lineup failed to take advantage of late scoring opportunities after plating three early runs. And Josh Bell was narrowly thrown out at the plate trying to score from first on Franco’s seventh-inning double to left, aggressively waved around by third base coach Gary DiSarcina.

But the sequence of events in the sixth and seventh defined this game and left the Nats to suffer three losses in four days to Pittsburgh after they took two of three in Atlanta to begin this road trip.

For five innings, Corbin did everything he could to put himself in position to complete six innings, something no member of this rotation has done to date. He commanded his fastball. He threw enough sliders in the vicinity of the zone to force hitters to swing at them. He did it all on 70 pitches, more than ample wiggle room to record three more outs.

There’s something about that sixth inning, though, that has scared off every Nationals starter through the season’s first week-plus. So what looked like a near-certainty instead turned into near-disaster.

It began with an error on Franco, the third of the day charged to the third baseman, who twice booted routine grounders and twice proceeded to skip his throw across the diamond. Josh Bell bailed him out on the second one, not the first, leading to a rare ruling of two errors on one play.

“Once he boots a play like that, he has to determine whether or not he’s got a chance,” Martinez said. “He’s got to look up and see where the runner’s at. If he doesn’t feel like he has a chance, just eat it, you know?”

Corbin erased that baserunner when he picked off Jake Marisnick, resetting the inning for himself. That’s as far as the lefty could get, though. He walked Daniel Vogelbach, gave up a single to Michael Chavis and walked Yoshi Tsutsugo, leaving Martinez with no choice but to make his way to the mound with hand extended for the ball.

“I wasn’t fatigued,” Corbin said. “It was good to get up to 90 pitches, get into the sixth; I haven’t done that yet. They just had a couple good at-bats. I walked a couple guys there. Trying to be aggressive in the zone. I was just missing a little bit away.”

In came Victor Arano, who quickly has become a trusted source for getting out of jams with his ability to induce grounders. And the right-hander did exactly as desired, getting Diego Castillo to hit a chopper to third. Franco did his job, catching the ball and then throwing it to second for the force out. But César Hernández was just a smidge too slow on the turn, and that meant the lead runner scored and the inning continued.

A subsequent single to left by Ben Gamel brought home another run, and left Cishek to try to protect a 3-2 lead in the seventh.

Martinez selected Cishek for that inning even though three of the Pirates’ first four batters were left-handed or switch-hitters: “I like Cishek right there. … I like his slider up there. He’s got that fastball that rises, but he just couldn't find the plate today.”

No, he couldn’t. Cishek threw only six of his 12 pitches for strikes, and the sidearming reliever wound up surrendering singles to all three of the left-handed batters.

“Falling behind in that situation is only going to lead to bad things, typically,” he said. “I just need to do a better job getting ahead.”

A wild pitch that should’ve been scored a passed ball on Riley Adams only made it worse.

“I’ve got to keep that ball in front of me,” the young backup catcher said. “There’s no excuse there. He did nothing wrong there. I’ve got to keep that one in front.”

By the time Sean Doolittle finally entered to face the left-handed Tsutsugo, the Nationals already trailed by a run. Doolittle nearly ended the entire inning on one pitch, getting a ground ball to second. The infield couldn’t quite turn the 4-6-3 double play in time, though, so that extended the deficit to 5-3, and the lineup couldn’t make it up the rest of the way.

Give the Nationals credit for this: They spent the majority of this road trip jumping out to early leads. They scored five runs in the top of the third Monday in Atlanta, then in each of the subsequent six games they scored in either the first or second inning.

They were back at it in today’s finale, plating three runs in the top of the second thanks to a sustained rally from the bottom of the lineup. Franco walked, and Lane Thomas and Alcides Escobar singled to load the bases against Pirates lefty José Quintana, then the previously hitless No. 8 and No. 9 batters drove them all in.

Adams had been 0-for-6 to date, starting only twice in place of top catcher Keibert Ruiz. But when he delivered an RBI single to left, he had his first hit of the season and the Nats had a 1-0 lead.

Victor Robles then enjoyed his most cathartic moment of the year, sending a two-run single to left to snap an 0-for-18 funk and extend the lead to 3-0.

So it was the Nationals continued a dramatic reversal of fortunes with the bases loaded. They hit a major-league-worst .198 last season. They’re now 7-for-12 with the bases full this season.

Those three early runs, though, were all they scored on this chilly afternoon. Now they head home a disappointing 4-7 after ending what had been a promising road trip on a sour note.

“We should have put them away early,” Martinez said. “We didn’t do that either, so we’ve got to just finish. We’ve got to finish games, keep working good at-bats throughout the whole game and put teams like that away.”

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