Bullpen can't hold off Nats as Bucs fall in DC

Pirates drop half-game out of second NL Wild Card spot with loss

Bullpen can't hold off Nats as Bucs fall in DC

WASHINGTON -- As they have done often lately, the Pirates on Saturday night had an early breakout against a tough starting pitcher, then placed their bats in storage.

With dogged efforts from their own starters and air-tight relief, the Bucs have repeatedly gotten away with the act.

Not on this night. The Pirates rallied for three runs in the third, saw them neutralized five innings later and ultimately watched the Nationals walk off for a 4-3 victory.

It literally was a walk-off defeat in Nationals Park in front of 41,880 -- half of them, by the ear test, Pirates fans. Bryce Harper could walk home from second base with the winning run after Wilson Ramos' drive to right bounced into the home bullpen for a ground-rule double.

The loss dropped the Bucs' record to 0-4 on this road trip, matching their longest losing streak of the season. The only team in the Majors yet to win or lose more than four straight this season, the Pirates are in jeopardy of doing it on the dark side in Sunday's series finale.

This was a tale of three left-handed pitchers -- four, if you include Gio Gonzalez, Pittsburgh's lefty nemesis jolted by the Bucs with a two-out, three-run charge in the third.

Then silence.

"Yeah, we would've liked to have added on," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We did the job we wanted against Gonzalez. Then their bullpen threw zeros."

The trio of starring southpaws in this tale were Jeff Locke, who brilliantly held off the Nats for 5 2/3 innings, and relievers Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, who were unable to close the deal.

The troubles of Watson, jumped for the three tying runs in the eighth, and Wilson, who didn't retire either of the two men he faced in the ninth, had one common element.

"Leadoff walks in each inning. They can complicate things," Hurdle said.

Watson's walk was of rookie pinch-hitter Michael Taylor. Consecutive singles by Denard Span and Kevin Frandsen produced one run, but then Anthony Rendon obligingly grounded into a double play, raising Watson's chances of getting away with only one run.

"Double play, the lefty coming up -- the matchup you want," Watson. said. "Just stupid pitching."

The lefty was Adam LaRoche, whom Watson had retired Friday night by getting him to ground out on an inside fastball after working him away with the slider. Watson went at him the same way -- but the 1-0 fastball wound up in the Washington bullpen, a two-run homer that tied the game at 3.

"He was geared for the fastball," Watson said. "Bottom line, you've got to get the lefties out."

Wilson's leadoff walk was to Harper, who advanced to second on a wild pitch before walking home as Ramos' drive cleared right fielder Gregory Polanco's head and bounced into the Washington bullpen.

"I gotta get the first guy out," Wilson said. "I can't give Harper a free pass there ... and give him second on a spiked cutter. I get Harper out, the double doesn't hurt you."

Until the eighth, the Bucs had complete command of the game.

That brief, two-out charge against Gonzalez began with a run-scoring double by Starling Marte, making good use of his first career start in the cleanup spot. Gaby Sanchez followed with a single for two more runs and a 3-0 lead.

Marte was the seventh different player to start at cleanup for the Pirates this season. His first sighting there likely won't be the last.

Second baseman Neil Walker, omitted from the starting lineup as scheduled after playing nine innings on Friday for the first time since lower-back tightness struck him on Aug. 1, entered the game defensively in the seventh.

After Locke had tenaciously blanked Washington on four hits, Jared Hughes added 1 1/3 innings to the shutout string.

"It's tough. Locke goes out there and gives you a great effort, then Hughsie comes in ... and you go out there and give up three," Watson said. "It's never good, especially in the position we're in now [one-half game out of the second National League Wild Card spot], pushing hard.

"It's go-time. Got to shut it off and move on to the next day."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.