Nats' bullpen has another meltdown as Pirates win

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals are running out of ways to describe a string of losses that always seem to end the same way -- with a meltdown moment from the bullpen.

This time it was a wild pitch in the ninth inning, a two-out slider from Joel Hanrahan that bounced before it got to home plate. Freddy Sanchez scored from third base, the deciding run that gave the Pittsburgh Pirates a 2-1 victory Wednesday night. It was their season-high fifth straight win and the Nationals' seventh consecutive loss.

"I'm tired of talking about losses, period," Washington outfielder Adam Dunn said. "You can only say the same thing over and over and over before you get fed up with it, and that's kind of what's going on right now."

Losses are beginning to feel inevitable for the Nationals, hardly surprising considering that the defense is poor and the bullpen's record is 1-15. The Pirates have been more than happy to capitalize, posting three straight wins against Washington relievers to pull themselves out of last place in the National League Central.

"It's unbelievable. You can just feel the electricity in the clubhouse," said reliever John Grabow (2-0), who pitched the eighth inning for the victory. "It's so awesome knowing that when you win, how much it changes the mood. Everybody's a lot more confident. When you come to the field and you're expecting a win, it makes all the difference."

Hanrahan (0-2), brought on in the ninth inning of a tie game despite season-long struggles, walked pinch-hitter Delwyn Young to lead it off. Sanchez and Nate McLouth singled to load the bases with one out. Pinch-hitter Brandon Moss hit into a fielder's choice that forced Young at the plate.

Then came Hanrahan's bouncer to Adam LaRoche on a 1-2 pitch, giving the Pirates the run they needed.

"It's my strikeout pitch, and right now I'm just not giving it a chance," said Hanrahan, whose ERA is 6.87 in 19 appearances. "They're not swinging at it, and I'm not getting it close to the strike zone. Every one I've been throwing is 60 feet, and that's not going to cut it."

The Nationals squandered late chances by hitting into double plays in the eighth and ninth innings, and pinch-hitter Josh Willingham ended the game with a fly ball off closer Matt Capps that McLouth snagged about a foot from the top of the wall in center field.

"I looked up and saw it carrying out," said Capps, who got his eighth save. "I saw Nate running back the way he was and I said, 'All right. I guess it's gone.' But he made a great play on it."

After plenty of scoring in the first two games of the series, the bats cooled off on both sides. The Pirates had averaged 9 runs in the first four games of their winning streak, while the Nationals had scored five or more runs in 10 straight games for the first time in franchise history. Washington's streak of six consecutive losses with five or more runs had tied a major league record.

Starter Paul Maholm gave up one run over six innings for the Pirates. John Lannan allowed one run over seven innings for the Nationals, but that meant the Pirates got to face the bullpen for the final two.

"Keep putting pressure on them," Pittsburgh manager John Russell said, "and eventually something's got to crack."

Hanrahan's wild pitch wasn't even the Nationals' biggest bonehead play. Dunn halfheartedly short-hopped a throw from left field on a double by Jack Wilson in the fourth inning. The ball bounced past three players -- Cristian Guzman, Ronnie Belliard and Ryan Zimmerman -- while Andy LaRoche came around to score. The fans booed, having come to expect such moments from a team on pace to lose 116 games.

"It doesn't seem like anything's going right for us right now," Washington manager Manny Acta said.

Game notes
Zimmerman reached safely for the 38th consecutive game. ... Nationals OF Austin Kearns was back in the starting lineup for the first time since getting hit by a pitch on his hand Friday night. Justin Maxwell, officially recalled from Triple-A Syracuse earlier Wednesday, started in center field.