Ninth-inning gaffe leaves Nationals waiting another day

PITTSBURGH - The plastic curtains were taped up high above the lockers inside the visitors' clubhouse at PNC Park, even after the Nationals suffered a gut punch of a 6-5 11-inning loss to the Pirates tonight, even after the Mets had earlier beaten the Phillies in convincing fashion to prevent any possibility of a celebration here.

The clubhouse crew, however, went through the trouble to get the room ready. Might as well keep the plastic up in case it's needed Saturday night. Or maybe even Sunday afternoon.

Mark-Melancon-throw-gray-sidebar.jpgThe Nationals know they're going to clinch the National League East title. They just don't know when quite yet. And so while there was obvious disappointment tonight after Mark Melancon blew the save with two outs in the ninth and Yusmeiro Petit gave up the winning run in the 11th, there also was the understanding that tonight's events only delayed the inevitable.

The Nats could have moved one last step closer to a champagne celebration. Had they simply been able to record the 27th out, they could have walked away with a 5-4 victory, a magic number of one and the knowledge they could wrap this up Saturday without needing to scoreboard-watch.

But they couldn't record that out, at least not until after surrendering the tying run. That the man who gave up that run was Melancon, the former Pirates closer dealt to the Nationals two months ago, only added to the drama.

The crowd of 29,513 gave Melancon a standing ovation when he entered from the bullpen, and the Pirates played a brief video tribute on the scoreboard as he warmed up. The uber-focused Melancon caught the crowd reaction, but he was so locked in on his warm-up pitches, he missed the video.

"I didn't really know they put a montage up or anything like that. It was very classy," he said. "And it was very cool I got a standing O. I wanted to tip my cap, but I didn't want to mess up my mojo, either. I probably should've tipped my cap."

Who knows how events may have unfolded had Melancon paused to thank the Pittsburgh fans? We do know this: The events that unfolded in reality weren't particularly enjoyable for the reliever or anybody else wearing a curly W cap.

With two outs and a man on first, the Nationals needed only one more out. Melancon threw a 1-0 cutter to Sean Rodriguez, the pitch down in the zone but over the plate. Rodriguez tagged it to left-center field, but off the bat, the assumption was that Trea Turner would probably be able to make the play. Instead, the rookie center fielder, still learning his position on the fly, took a less-than-perfect angle on the ball and watched it sail over his extended glove and roll to the wall.

"Cutter low and away. I didn't think he hit it that good necessarily," Turner said. "It got over my head, and I made a mistake."

Turner didn't play the ball like an experienced center fielder, but he also was playing a bit shallower than might be expected for that situation: two outs, tying run on first. Teams typically have their outfielders in a no-doubles alignment, essentially positioning them deep enough that nothing can get over their heads that doesn't also get over the fence on the fly.

"That's our fault for him not playing deeper," manager Dusty Baker said. "He's a novice out there. Sometimes you're going to make mistakes out there. Or it's going to appear to be mistakes. I thought he had a bead on that ball. And then I was surprised the ball took off on him. That wasn't his mistake. That was our mistake."

Said Turner: "I think I play fairly deep for the most part. But looking back at it, no-doubles is probably the position to be in. If I'm a step or two back, or even exaggerated a little, maybe I catch the ball."

This was Melancon's first blown save in 13 tries since he joined the Nationals. He admitted it was "a little weird" pitching in this ballpark as a visitor. He also insisted on pitching the bottom of the 10th as well, hoping he might somehow emerge victorious in the end.

He didn't - Petit gave up the winning run on Jacob Stallings' bases-loaded single in the bottom of the 11th - but he understood he was the man on the mound when victory was still within reach two innings prior.

"It's not something I wanted to happen, but you build on it," Melancon said. "You learn. At the end of the day, you get better from your mistakes."

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