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A demoralizing meltdown for Nats

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A demoralizing meltdown for Nats

PITTSBURGH -- Henry Rodriguez's "stuff" -- his triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling slider -- is as good as any repertoire in baseball.

"Stuff," though doesn't always translate into success. Especially when it comes to protecting a one-run lead in the ninth inning. As much as everyone would like to believe pitching is pitching, no matter the situation, decades of evidence have suggested there are some relievers who simply can't handle the pressure of closing a big-league game.

Whether Rodriguez falls into that category remains to be seen. He's been handed the ball in a save situation in the ninth inning only 10 times in his career, successfully preserving the win on eight occasions. That's not enough of a sample size to draw any conclusive resolutions.

This much we do know: Rodriguez is an all-or-nothing reliever. When he's on, he's as good as anyone in the game. When he's off, hide the women and children.

Better yet, hide everyone, because it would have been darn near impossible for anyone with a rooting interest in the Nationals to watch Rodriguez's ninth-inning meltdown Tuesday night, resulting in a soul-crushing, 5-4 loss to the Pirates.

"Tough loss," said Adam LaRoche, who for about five minutes figured to be the hero of an uplifting victory. "Tough loss, man."

Rodriguez's second blown save in his last three opportunities was a product of two things: 1) His inability to throw a slider the full 60 feet, 6 inches, and 2) His subsequent need to rely on a fastball with the game on the line and everyone inside PNC Park knowing it.

The trouble began with one out in the ninth, when Alex Presley singled to left-center. Even so, Rodriguez jumped ahead of Yamaico Navarro 0-2 and needed just one more pitch to record the second out of the inning. Instead, he bounced an 84 mph slider in the dirt, and catcher Wilson Ramos was unable to keep the ball in front of him. Presley advanced to second on the wild pitch.

"He was in 0-2 counts, had to throw something in the ground and tried to get the hitters to swing at a bad pitch," Ramos said. "But, you know, it's hard to block those pitches. Sometimes you try to block the ball, and sometimes it hits off whatever side of my body and you run to the other side."

The count now 1-2, Ramos again called for a slider. And Rodriguez again bounced it in the dirt, the ball nearly skipping all the way into the Pittsburgh dugout. Presley took third base on Rodriguez's major-league-leading sixth wild pitch (five of them having come in his two blown saves).

"He tried to be too perfect," backup catcher Jesus Flores said, interpreting for Rodriguez. "He missed the spot and he tried too hard, but he just missed the location where he wanted to."

Rodriguez did rebound to strike out Navarro on a 99 mph fastball at the letter, but he still needed one more out to secure the win. The problem: With the tying run now at third, another slider in the dirt would spell disaster. So Rodriguez knew he had to start off Pittsburgh's Rod Barajas with a fastball.

"After seeing those two breaking balls in the dirt, chances were he wasn't going to throw that again," said Barajas, who stepped to the plate with a .127 batting average and zero home runs. "I'm a fastball hitter, and I wasn't going to let one go by."

He sure didn't. Though Rodriguez's first pitch was up and in, it registered a mere 96 mph, down a few ticks from every other fastball he threw in the inning. And Barajas destroyed it, launching the ball into the left-field bleachers for a walk-off, two-run homer.

"Definitely he was looking for the fastball," Rodriguez said through Flores.

"He's been so good with both pitches, there's no sense in not using one," said manager Davey Johnson, who added he'll stick with Rodriguez as his closer. "That's just part of maturing into a quality closer. Probably trying to make both pitches too good, trying to throw them too hard instead of just locating with something on it. He'll learn from that."

The evening's storyline had been set up perfectly, with LaRoche delivering a two-run homer off Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan in the top of the ninth to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead. LaRoche's blast -- the 1,000th home run in Nationals history -- capped a fantastic return from a sore oblique for the veteran first baseman, who went 2-for-3 with a single and a walk to go along with the homer.

In the end, though, the LaRoche home run was an afterthought as the Nationals lost yet another nip-and-tuck game on the road. They're now 8-0 in one-run games at home, 1-6 in one-run games away from Nationals Park.

And those one-run losses sting even more when they come about via a walk-off homer against a young reliever pressed into closing duties after two guys ahead of him on the depth chart succumbed to injury.

"I feel terrible for Henry," LaRoche said. "He wants to win as badly as anybody. Being able to throw 100 and having the guy run into it, it's frustrating."

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Bryce Harper launches mammoth home run into third deck at National Park

Bryce Harper launches mammoth home run into third deck at National Park

Bryce Harper had been in a little bit of a slump heading into Friday's game against the Padres, but in the seventh inning, he got back to what he does best. 

With a full count and a runner aboard, Harper launched an absolute bomb that landed in the third deck down the right field line at Nationals Park. That means a new seat will be painted red where the ball landed. 

Check out the blast for yourself: 

It was the 15th homer of the year for Harper, which leads the National League. 

More Nationals: Scherzer dominates Padres with 13-strikeout game

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Max Scherzer absolutely dominates Padres, piles up 13 strikeouts

Max Scherzer absolutely dominates Padres, piles up 13 strikeouts

WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer allowed three hits over 8 2/3 innings, Bryce Harper and Michael A. Taylor hit two-run homers and the Washington Nationals defeated the San Diego Padres 5-1 on Friday night.

Trea Turner added a solo homer and a double for Washington.

Scherzer (5-3) struck out a season-high 13. He allowed a single to Austin Hodges in the second, Ryan Schimpf's solo homer in the fourth and Allen Cordoba's single in the ninth, throwing 108 pitches, 81 for strikes

Scherzer, who tossed a season-low five innings in a loss to Atlanta last time out, retired 14 straight before Cordoba's single. After a walk to Yangervis Solarte, acting manager Chris Speier visited the mound, but he momentarily left Scherzer in.

However, after a strikeout and a hit batter, Speier called on Koda Glover who struck out pinch-hitter Hunter Renfroe to pick up his fourth save.

With Washington leading 3-1 in the seventh, Harper hit a towering shot into the third deck off reliever Kirby Yates, his 15th of the season.

After Schimpf's homer had tied it 1-1, Taylor quickly regained the lead for Washington when he homered with Matt Wieters aboard in the bottom of the inning.

Since taking over for injured center fielder Adam Lind on April 29, Taylor is hitting .307 (27 for 88) with five doubles, three triples, three homers and 10 RBIs.

San Diego starter Luis Perdomo (0-2) allowed three runs and six hits over six innings. He struck out six and walked two.

In the bottom of the first, Turner sent a 2-1 pitch over the wall in center field the Nationals' first leadoff homer of the season. It was the third of Turner's career.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Padres: OF Manuel Margot, who left Wednesday's game with right calf soreness, was in a walking boot. Manager Andy Green said the boot is a precaution for now. "Becoming increasingly likely that it's a DL stint, but he's active tonight," Green said. . RHP Carter Capps (Tommy John surgery) threw on the side Friday. "There's talk of facing hitters again on Monday or Tuesday," Green said.

Nationals: An MRI on OF Chris Heisey confirmed he has a ruptured right biceps tendon. However, he will attempt to rehab the injury without surgery and could return in a relatively short time. Heisey was on the field during batting practice, shagging fly balls in the outfield.

INSPEIERED LEADERSHIP

With manager Dusty Baker away this weekend to attend his son Darren's high school graduation in California, bench coach Speier is the acting manager. Asked before the game about Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy being out the lineup, Speier deadpanned: "Actually, Zimmerman had a whiffle ball accident with his daughter, sprained his right wrist and Murph's back is blown out." He quickly added: "Just a day off."

UP NEXT

Padres: LHP Clayton Richards (3-5, 4.31) is 1-3 in 10 career appearances, six starts, against the Nationals with a 3.56 ERA

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (5-1, 3.28) faces his hometown team for the seventh time in his career. He is 5-1 with a 3.50 ERA against San Diego.