The Pittsburgh Pirates erased a rough start with a four-run top of the ninth, but Washington Nationals star outfielder Bryce Harper drilled a walk-off two-run homer in the bottom of the inning to deliver a crazy 9-7 victory Thursday afternoon at Nationals Park.
Harper capped a three-hit day with an opposite-field dinger over the wall in left-center against Pirates reliever Bryan Morris. Roger Bernadina prolonged the inning one batter earlier, reaching on a fielder’s choice with two outs, as he was too speedy to double up on a soft grounder to second baseman Neil Walker.
Former Pirate Adam LaRoche had seemingly clinched the game for the Nationals with a two-RBI triple in the eighth off Vin Mazzaro, making it 7-3 in favor of Washington. Previously in the inning, Steve Lombardozzi had flared a run-scoring double, putting a flourish on a highlight-reel three-hit performance for the Nats’ infielder.
Losers of six in a row prior to Thursday, the Nationals sent closer Rafael Soriano out to protect the four-run lead in the ninth. However, Soriano walked Walker and Starling Marte back-to-back to start the frame, then surrendered an RBI double to Jordy Mercer and a run-scoring single to Russell Martin to make it 7-5.
Lefty reliever Ian Krol took over for Washington, but he gave Pedro Alvarez a free pass before Josh Harrison poked a two-run single up the middle to reward the plentiful Pirates fans who made the trip to D.C. Krol fanned Garrett Jones to end the inning, but it looked like just a matter of time before Pittsburgh (60-40) put the finishing touches on its fifth straight win.
Instead, Harper’s heroics prevented the Pirates from climbing to 22 games over .500, a mark they haven’t reached since their last winning season in 1992. The Bucs temporarily dropped two games behind first-place St. Louis in the National League Central, but they still took three out of four from the sinking Nationals (49-53).
The Pirates didn’t seem ready to go after getting the best of Washington ace Stephen Strasburg on Wednesday night, as they committed three errors in the first inning while fall behind 4-0. Miscues by third baseman Alvarez (catch) and first baseman Gaby Sanchez (throw) were especially costly, as was a two-out RBI single from Ryan Zimmerman.
Bucs starter A.J. Burnett rebounded nicely from the sloppy start, eventually going seven innings while allowing nine hits and striking out five. It was the first time he’d gotten through the sixth since recovering from a strained calf last month.
Burnett himself drove in Pittsburgh’s first run on a groundout in the fourth, but the Pirates seemed intent on letting Washington lefty Gio Gonzalez off the hook. Continuing a disturbing season-long pattern, the Bucs missed on their first 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
The Nationals defense played a part in frustrating the Bucs, with second baseman Lombardozzi robbing Marte and Alvarez of run-scoring hits in the second and third innings, respectively. Harper also made a diving snag of Marte’s potential leadoff double in the top of the first.
The Pirates finally broke through in the sixth, when Harrison launched a surprising two-run homer to left-center, his first, cutting the Nats lead to 4-3. Gonzalez departed soon after, still hoping his 11-strikeout effort would be enough to keep Washington from going 0-7 after the all-star break.
Both sides were vexed by the inconsistent strike zone of home-plate umpire Mike Winters, who gave numerous strikes on balls off the plate. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and Nationals skipper Davey Johnson were both ejected for arguing, although Hurdle was tossed by first-base umpire Laz Diaz after Diaz called Alvarez out on a controversial play to end the seventh. Alvarez reached on an infield single, but was tagged out when Diaz ruled he turned toward second base before casually returning to first.
While Harrison, Sanchez and Mercer had three hits apiece, the foursome of Marte, McCutchen, Martin and Alvarez went a combined 2 for 15, including just one hit in 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position.
With a 9-10 record in July and a 4-3 mark on their ongoing 10-game road trip, the Pirates head to Miami for a three-game weekend series. Lefty sensation Jeff Locke gets the start Friday night against the Marlins’ Henderson Alvarez. First pitch is scheduled for 7:10 p.m.