PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Pirates had been unbeatable this season when they took a lead into the ninth inning.
That changed Saturday because of the unlikeliest of double steals.
Tyler Moore’s sacrifice fly off Tony Watson (1-1) in the ninth scored Ryan Zimmerman, who earlier in the at-bat had stolen third while Adam LaRoche took second, to give the Washington Nationals a 5-4 win Saturday.
Zimmerman and LaRoche had combined for 36 steals in 2,219 games and none this season when they took off and got good enough jumps that Pirates catcher Russell Martin didn’t even bother throwing.
“We know who has what times (to the plate), what guys are slow and what guys are fast and what guys give a guy like me an actual chance to steal a base,” said Zimmerman, whose steal of third was the first of his career. “When you’re looking at a pitcher that takes 1.8-2.0 seconds to get the ball to the plate, I should be able to steal off him.”
Even Moore quipped, “I thought those would be the last two guys ever to have a double steal.”
Apparently, the Pirates thought so, too.
“Even if I make a great throw, I don’t even know if I have time because I thought he had a really good jump,” Martin said. “In that situation, it’s more them doing something special than us doing something wrong.”
The Pirates saw a 4-2 lead evaporate in the sixth on Wilson Ramos’ two-run single. That was critical because Pittsburgh is 12-0 when leading after six innings this season and hasn’t blown a lead at any time after the sixth.
But with the game tied, manager Clint Hurdle resisted using Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, against whom opponents combine to hit .163.
“Grilli’s not going to pitch in certain situations when the game’s tied at home in the ninth inning just because of the usage that we want to make sure we monitor,” Hurdle said. “Melancon is only going to pitch right now when we’re ahead in the eighth inning.”
Instead, Justin Wilson surrendered Ramos’ tying hit in the sixth. Watson hit Zimmerman with a pitch and gave up a single to LaRoche before allowing them to steal and serving up a sinker that Moore lifted deep into the right field corner.
“The way we were set up we wanted to get two innings out of Watson,” Hurdle said. “If we don’t go (to a long reliever), we’ve got to go to Melancon or Grilli next, and we’re not going to do that right now.”
Washington’s Stephen Strasburg struck out eight in seven innings, and the Nationals won one of his outings for the first time since opening day.
Strasburg remained winless since his first start, though. He allowed four runs and five hits — all of Pittsburgh’s offense coming on two-run homers by Starling Marte and Clint Barmes.
“I was absolutely happy about getting through the seventh inning,” Strasburg said. “The biggest thing is to give your team a chance to win the ballgame. Not every game are you going to be lights out and hitting every spot.”
Tyler Clippard (2-1) pitched a scoreless eighth and Rafael Soriano got his 10th save.
Manager Davey Johnson said the Nationals were being more aggressive on the bases in an attempt to jump-start a lethargic offense that had scored three or fewer runs 14 times in its most recent 20 games.
Before the game, Johnson called a rare team meeting with the same goal in mind.
His primary message: Relax. For the first time since the franchise moved from Montreal eight years ago, the Nationals entered the season with high expectations. The NL East champions entered the game having struck out 239 times, second-most in the NL, and whiffed 14 times during Friday’s series-opening loss.
In an effort to loosen the team up, the 70-year-old Johnson even took batting practice — hacking about 40 swings — for what he said was the first time in 25 years.
The results were mixed most of the afternoon: The Nationals scored more than three runs for the first time in seven games, but had only six hits.
Pirates starter Jeff Locke allowed three of those during his five-plus innings, giving up four runs, three earned, with three walks and three strikeouts.
Ian Desmond’s sacrifice fly in the third snapped a 15-plus scoreless inning streak by Locke. LaRoche drove in Zimmerman with a fly to right an inning later after Zimmerman led off the inning with a triple.
“Everything felt pretty good today,” Locke said. “I just need to be a little bit more efficient early in the count.”
NOTES: Washington outfielder Denard Span was not in the lineup a day after fouling a ball off his right foot. The Nationals are without outfielder Jayson Werth (right hamstring) for the series. ... Pittsburgh had a four-game home winning streak snapped. ... All of the Pirates’ seven runs in the series have come by way of home run. ... Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen extended his hitting streak against the Nationals to 17 games. ... A pair of left-handers start in the series finale today. The last time Pittsburgh’s Wandy Rodriguez (2-1, 3.91) faced Washington’s Gio Gonzalez (2-2, 3.54), it was a 1-0 pitchers’ duel won by Gonzalez on April 17, 2012.