Obscure rule leads to decisive run in Nats' loss (updated)

Whatever took place on South Capitol Street this afternoon would not qualify as “good” baseball in the minds of most. Mistakes were made, both physical and mental. Outs were given away, both in the field and on the bases. Effective pitching was hard to come by. An obscure, and fairly infuriating, rule was invoked in the top of the fifth, giving the Pirates a run they didn’t particularly deserve.

And wouldn’t you know how this would all turn out in the end, with the Nationals losing by that one run, 8-7, in a ballgame that was, if not well-played, at least interesting.

A back-and-forth affair ultimately came down to the run umpires awarded the Pirates on a bizarre play in the fifth that saw the Nationals turn an inning-ending double play yet still surrender a run to a guy who left third base too soon on a lineout because they didn’t properly appeal to have him declared what practically speaking would’ve been the fourth out of the inning.

Got all that? We’ll attempt to explain further in just a moment.

The upshot at the end of the day: The Nats failed to complete their first three-game sweep of the season, and now head into an off-day trying to sort through the mess they just endured on a warm, late-June afternoon in D.C.

"I don't know how to say this nicely," manager Davey Martinez said, carefully choosing his words.

This was already shaping up to be an eventful game long before the hysteria of the fifth inning. The Pirates jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead when Bryan Reynolds homered off Paolo Espino in the top of the first. The Nationals responded with two runs of their own via five hits off Mitch Keller, headlined by RBI singles from Nelson Cruz and Keibert Ruiz.

The Nats then took a 3-2 lead in the second on Juan Soto’s RBI double, only his eighth hit in 57 at-bats with runners in scoring position this season, only to watch Espino give the run back on Daniel Vogelbach’s solo homer in the fourth.

That brings us to the wild and wacky fifth, in which Espino (charged with four runs in 5 1/3 innings) was pulled before having an opportunity to face the Pittsburgh lineup a third time. Steve Cishek was handed a jam – second and third, one out, Ke’Bryan Hayes at the plate – and seemed for a moment to pitch his way out of it when Josh Bell snagged Hayes’ sinking liner to first just before it touched the ground.

Because both of the Pirates’ runners – Jack Suwinski on third, Hoy Park on second – kept running off the bat, not realizing the ball had been caught in the air, Bell made what seemed an obvious and smart decision to throw the ball across the diamond. Ehire Adrianza caught it and tagged Park, who was called out for having not properly tagged up on a lineout, then stepped on the base as well for good measure.

"I caught the ball on the line, and I noticed that the runner was going home. No one was tagging up," Bell said. "So I threw it to Adrianza there. And it was wild, because he makes the tag, he touches third. And it was one of those scenarios where we didn't think we had to do anything else."

Except, they did. Pirates manager Derek Shelton came out of the dugout to ask if Bell actually did catch the ball on the fly. The umpires conferred and agreed Bell did, but also decided that because Suwinski crossed the plate before Adrianza tagged Park near third base, that run counted, even though he didn't properly tag up, even though the Nationals had already recorded three outs

The reason, which was finally discerned several minutes and several arguments later: The run counted because of Rule 5.09c(4), which states a defensive team is required to formally make an appeal throw or tag of a runner who leaves his base too soon, even if it technically would qualify as the “fourth out” of an inning.

"The defensive team could appeal for a fourth out, is what it’s called, that the runner from third didn’t tag up," crew chief Mark Wegner told a pool reporter. "But they have to do that ... before the defensive team leaves the field, which is when the pitcher and all infielders have left fair territory on their way to the bench or the clubhouse."

It’s a highly uncommon situation, and the logic behind it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but there didn’t appear to be anything the Nats could do about it, aside from having correctly made another appeal throw to third before departing the field at the end of the inning, which they did only because they were initially told the inning was over.

"We couldn't appeal, because we went off the field, being that they called an out," Martinez said. "Inning's over. So, what do you do? Stand on the field? No. ...

"I felt like we did everything right. We caught the ball. He threw it. He tagged the runner and the base. They said he didn't touch the base."

So, the Pirates now led 4-3. Until the Nationals stormed right back and scored three runs in the bottom of the fifth, hardly in conventional fashion. That half-inning included RBI hits from Ruiz, Yadiel Hernandez and César Hernández, but it also included some bad defense from Pittsburgh, a safety squeeze single by Adrianza in which no runners advanced and then near-disaster on the bases when Ruiz didn’t run on contact on César Hernández’s two-out blooper to left, with Yadiel Hernandez right on his heels and a throw to the plate nearly nailing both runners. (Ruiz did manage to slide in safely, with Hernández then tagged out behind him.)

"I thought there was only one out, which is why I played it the way I played it," Ruiz said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. "Obviously, it affected the game and swayed the game in the wrong direction, probably. It's something that I'll learn from and get it right the next time."

That sequence left the Nationals holding a 6-4 lead, but that quickly became 6-5 when Reynolds hit his second homer of the day, this one off reliever Carl Edwards Jr.

And Reynolds was far from done. After Edwards let a pair of batters reach in the top of the seventh, Davey Martinez summoned Kyle Finnegan once again to face the best part of the opposition’s lineup. It didn’t work this time, because Reynolds drove a three-run, opposite-field homer off Finnegan to give the Pirates an 8-6 lead.

Yadiel Hernandez would add a solo homer in the seventh to cut the deficit to 8-7, but remarkably, both bullpens shut things down after that, brought an end to the chaos and left the Nats to stew over a one-run loss made possible by one controversial run that wasn’t earned by their opponents.

"It's happened a few times this week, so it's kind of frustrating," said Martinez, whose team also was burned by a missed call in a one-run loss over the weekend in Texas. "I'm not blaming that we lost (today's) game by that one play, but it's a big run. It's a one-run game, right?"

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