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Bucs enjoying breaks going their way

Bucs enjoying breaks going their way

WASHINGTON -- For all that had gone wrong during that eight-game losing skid, the Pirates can no longer claim that the breaks don't eventually even themselves out. Unable to do anything with runners in scoring position all night, Pittsburgh still managed to pick up a 2-1 win over Washington at Nationals Park on Wednesday.

It was a win that came courtesy of a two-out, two-strike wild pitch by Nationals reliever John Hanrahan and a seemingly unfair -- for Washington, at least -- 400-foot out by Josh Willingham to end the game. But with their winning streak now at five, the Pirates are finding it hard to do much wrong.

"We'll take them any way we can get them right now," said John Grabow, one of four Bucs relievers to combine for three scoreless innings. "Right now everything seems to be going in our favor. A week-and-a-half ago, it wasn't going like that. It's amazing how things change quick."

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No need to look anywhere but the ninth inning to make that observation.

After going 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position through the first eight frames, the Pirates went to work offensively against Hanrahan, recently re-designated as the closer for a Nationals team that now has dropped seven straight. Singles by pinch-hitter Delwyn Young, Freddy Sanchez and Nate McLouth loaded the bases with one out.

Still, Pittsburgh appeared poised to let that opportunity go by the wayside.

"We strung together some hits tonight and just couldn't push anyone across," Pirates manager John Russell said, summing up the missed opportunities.

Pinch-hitter Brandon Moss grounded to first base, giving Washington's Nick Johnson plenty of time to take the easy force at home for the second out. Adam LaRoche, mired in a 1-for-19 slump, then immediately fell behind in the count, 0-2.

But the Nationals, who had gift-wrapped the Pirates' first run of the game when left fielder Adam Dunn made a weak throw to take away what seemed to be a fairly easy opportunity to throw out Andy LaRoche at home, found a way to fumble again.

Hanrahan's 1-2 pitch to LaRoche bounced in front of the plate and skipped to the backstop. Freddy Sanchez scored easily from third.

"I'm throwing my slider. It's a good out-pitch for me," Hanrahan said. "It's my strikeout pitch. Right now, I'm not giving it a chance. They are not swinging at it, and I'm not getting it close to the strike zone. I'm throwing it at 60 feet. That's not going to cut it."

So despite leaving 13 runners on base and going 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position, the Pirates took the lead into the bottom half of the ninth. In came closer Matt Capps, whom Russell had hoped to stay away from simply because of Capps' extensive workload over the past week. Capps had appeared in five of the previous eight games.

He gave up a leadoff single, but that was erased on a double play.

"Makes up for all those groundballs that have been finding holes lately," Capps joked after the game.

Pinch-hitter Josh Willingham and his 2-for-2 career resume against Capps represented the Nationals' final chance. Willingham caught up to Capps' 95-mph fastball and sent it deep to center.

"Off the bat, I didn't think I had it," Capps said. "Then I saw it carrying out and Nate running back the way he was, and I said, 'I guess it's going.'"

Four hundred feet deep, one foot short. McLouth caught the ball with his back against the wall.

"Long out," Russell said, grinning.

With the win, the Pirates find themselves within two games of that ever-elusive .500 mark.

"It's been huge for us," Capps said of the recent rebound. "We've battled through some injuries. Our starting pitching has kept us in every single game. We're doing it from every aspect of the game, and it's been fun to watch."

Though he didn't factor into the decision, credit starter Paul Maholm with keeping a dangerous Washington offense from getting much of anything going. The Nationals, who had scored at least five runs in 10 straight games, managed just one off Maholm in six innings.

"To throw the way he did and only give up one against a team like that, he did a very nice job," Russell said. "They're very explosive. He kept them in check."

Though the Pirates were hopeful that Maholm could pitch deeper into his start in order to keep the bullpen's work minimal, he made the pitches when he needed to, stranding seven runners and matching his season-high mark of seven strikeouts.

Usually quite efficient, Maholm needed 63 pitches to get through the first three innings and amassed 114 after six. That certainly was more a product of patient at-bats and a bevy of foul balls from the Nationals than any shortcoming by Maholm.

"They ran my pitch count up, but some days it happens and you've just got to bump them down when a runner is on base," said Maholm, who has made three quality starts in his last four outings. "It's definitely mentally draining when you're going through it. They swing it well."

As well as Maholm pitched, Washington starter John Lannan matched him, allowing only Jack Wilson's RBI double in the third over seven innings.

With one more game remaining against the Nationals, the Pirates have a chance to complete their first four-game sweep since doing so against the Brewers from May 29-June 1, 2006.

Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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