Had his lineup produced just one more hit among the countless scoring opportunities that presented themselves this afternoon, Davey Martinez might well have turned over the final innings of the Nationals’ doubleheader opener against the Pirates to his "A" bullpen.
Alas, with his team trailing by a lone run, Martinez opted not to use up his best relief arms, saving them instead for the nightcap. It didn’t take long for that one-run deficit to morph into a three-run deficit and ultimately a 6-3 loss.
A game that was tied at two in the sixth turned Pittsburgh’s way when Miguel Andujar launched a two-run homer off Carl Edwards Jr. The Nats would get one run back in the bottom of the inning, but they now needed rookie Thaddeus Ward and others from the "B" bullpen to keep the game close.
That did not happen. Ward did pitch his way out of a self-made jam in the seventh but then was pulled after issuing a leadoff walk to Andujar in the eighth. In came Anthony Banda, who proceeded to turn the rest of the inning into a mess.
Banda, the lone lefty in the Nationals bullpen since Opening Day, didn’t retire either of the left-handed batters he faced, plunking Tucupita Marcano on the hand, then allowing a bunt single to Ji Hwan Bae (denying third baseman Jeimer Candelario a chance to make what looked like an easier play than he had himself).
"That's on me," Banda said of the bunt play. "My job is to stay middle of the field. I didn't do that. I chased the ball. In the heat of the moment, just trying to get an out somewhere."
Banda then walked .171-hitting catcher Austin Hedges to force in a run and draw Martinez back out of the dugout for another pitching change.
"You come in the game, you've got to throw strikes," Martinez said. "You can't give these guys free bases."
Erasmo Ramirez did the best he could with the bases-loaded jam he inherited, but the Pirates still added another insurance run on a sacrifice fly. And the 6-3 deficit the Nationals now faced was far too steep for this run-challenged lineup.
They’ll hope for better results in the 6:05 p.m. nightcap, with Chad Kuhl on the mound to face his former team while his current team tries to have more success against Vince Velasquez than it did against Rich Hill.
In this matchup of veteran lefties, both Hill and Patrick Corbin created plenty of jams for themselves. Yet each managed to minimize the damage, getting outs when they needed them, in some cases without even throwing a pitch.
The Nationals gave themselves no shortage of chances against the ageless Hill, taking a whopping 13 at-bats with runners in scoring position off the 43-year-old. The problem: They recorded only two hits in those 13 at-bats, and one of them didn’t even bring anyone home.
"You've just got to pick each other up," said Riley Adams, who delivered one of those two hits. "I think everyone's trying to get the job done in those moments. Everyone's trying to drive in runs and execute. But sometimes you aren't successful, and you trust the guy behind you to do it. I know the more we get put in that situation, the more we have runners in scoring position and less than two outs, the better chances are to get that job done in the future."
Adams did his part today, ripping a two-out, two-run double down the left field line in the bottom of the fourth. Getting a rare start behind the plate, the Nationals’ backup catcher made the most of the opportunity, collecting a pair of hits and also throwing out a runner trying to steal.
That throw in the top of the fifth to nab Ke’Bryan Hayes trying to swipe second helped Corbin keep the damage to a minimum. So did Corbin’s astute pickoff move in the top of the second, catching Rodolfo Castro hung up between second and third for a key out that prevented the Pirates from doing more than scoring just one run in the inning.
"That inside move there, that was a big out in that inning," the left-hander said. "I was able to just give up one there."
Corbin’s defense couldn’t help him in the fourth when Connor Joe lofted a solo homer to center on a 2-2 fastball, though Alex Call just barely ran out of real estate to attempt a leaping catch at the wall.
By the time Corbin returned to the mound for the sixth, his leash was short. He allowed a leadoff double to Andrew McCutchen, then got Joe to ground out to short before Martinez emerged from the dugout to take the ball from him, his pitch count sitting at 91.
"Before the game, I had (Edwards) penciled in for that situation," the manager said. "Patrick threw the ball well. You know, he had 27 pitches in the second inning. He was up there in his pitch count. I said if he gets in trouble here, CJ can come in and get the bulk."
Martinez preferred Edwards for this high-leverage situation, a preference that did not pay off. Andujar took a mighty cut at Edwards’ full-count fastball at the top of (or possibly even above) the zone and drove it into the left field bullpen for a 4-3 lead that left Nationals fans muttering and the sizeable number of Pirates fans in attendance cheering.
The domino effect of that home run was evident in the subsequent names Martinez summoned from his bullpen to finish off a loss, leaving his top relievers available for what he hopes will be a win later tonight.
"One hundred percent," he said. "The other thing is I can't keep running (my top relievers) out there. We're not going to have them in June or July. These other guys, they've got to come in."
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