WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sean Doolittle pounded his left fist against his right palm while discussing his first blown save in 22 chances since joining the Washington Nationals.
The good news for Doolittle and the Nationals: This misstep came in a meaningless game. Better now than late next week, when Washington is facing the reigning World Series champion Chicago Cubs in an NL Division Series.
The NL East champion Nationals began their last series of the regular season Thursday night without a sore Bryce Harper and wound up with a 5-4 victory on Alejandro De Aza’s game-ending RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose starting pitcher, Ivan Nova, left after getting hit by a pitch on his throwing hand while batting.
Doolittle was 21 for 21 in save opportunities for Washington since arriving from Oakland in a trade in July, but this one unraveled in a span of two pitches. The lefty came on for the ninth with a 4-2 lead but allowed a leadoff single to Andrew McCutchen on his first pitch, then Josh Bell’s 26th homer on his next.
“They were OK pitches. They were located OK. But they didn’t have that killer instinct behind them,” Doolittle said. “Sometimes when things are going good _ and they’ve been going good for a little while _ I don’t want to say you let your guard down but — I don’t think I was aggressive enough coming in.”
Added Doolittle: “It’s a harsh reminder and it’s a tough pill to swallow, but there are some things I can take out of this and learn from moving forward.”
Nationals manager Dusty Baker’s take?
“Now he can start all over again. Better now than later,” Baker said.
Referring to Doolittle’s save streak, Baker joked: “If he goes 21 more, then that means we’re the world champions.”
Well, first things first. Washington opens against the Cubs on Oct. 6, hoping to be healthy, of course.
Howie Kendrick, a possible starter instead of Jayson Werth in left field, was taken out in the third inning Thursday after diving to try to catch a sinking liner. Baker said he was just being cautious and that Kendrick had felt his hamstring tighten a bit during pregame warmups.
“He’s fine,” Baker said. “I’ve just got to watch him the next couple days.”
Kendrick was replaced by De Aza, who delivered a tiebreaking RBI triple and came around to score in the seventh, making it 4-2. After Bell evened things, De Aza connected off Daniel Hudson (2-7), which made a winner of Doolittle (1-0).
Harper returned from the disabled list this week after missing 42 games because of a hyperextended left knee. He played Tuesday and Wednesday, then sat out Thursday because he felt “a little sore.” Baker said it was nothing to be “alarmed” about.
With nothing at stake for his team _ or the long-ago-eliminated Pirates, for that matter _ Baker gave other regulars a day off, including Ryan Zimmerman, Trea Turner and Matt Wieters.
RHP Nova was struck on his right index finger by RHP Edwin Jackson. Nova’s finger was bandaged after the game; X-rays did not show a break. “I really came into today prepared to have a good game and unfortunately it ended like that,” he said. “It’s my first time getting hit, so I know what the (batter) feels now.” — Jackson allowed two runs in six innings in what he said was an emotional outing because his grandmother recently died. He was 5-6 for Washington and is not expected to be in the postseason rotation.
RING THAT BELL
Bell’s two-run shot off Doolittle on a 93 mph fastball tied Jason Bay’s Pirates rookie record of 26 homers, set in 2004. “You don’t want to go to the bathroom or walk away when he’s up to the plate,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You don’t know what you’re going to miss.”
Nationals RHP Stephen Strasburg (14-4, 2.68 ERA) makes his last pre-playoffs tuneup start, facing Pirates RHP Gerrit Cole (12-11, 4.23 ERA).
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