Josh Bell’s triumphant return to Pittsburgh was all set until the Washington Nationals’ bullpen showed up.
The switch-hitting first baseman, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates in a December trade, hit his team-leading 26th homer and scored another run in front of an appreciative Pittsburgh crowd.
But with the Nationals in position to win the game in the ninth, Patrick Murphy and Alberto Baldonado took just two-thirds of an inning to ruin Bell’s big night, as well as 6 2⁄3 strong innings from lefty Josh Rogers, and the Pirates walked off on the Nats, 4-3.
It all happened with manager Davey Martinez sidelined after being suspended over Sean Nolin’s plunking of Freddie Freeman in Atlanta Wednesday. Bench coach Tim Bogar managed the team against the Pirates.
Bell greeted former teammates with warm embraces before his first game at Pittsburgh’s PNC park since the trade, and he received a standing ovation from the announced crowd of 11,808.
“You don’t really know what to expect going into it. But I was happy to get somewhat of a good turnout, cool little video tribute that they put together for me,” Bell told reporters afterward.
“It was cool to feel that like standing O, and kind of brought back a bit of a flashback to 2016 when I first had my first ovation, right when I first got called up.”
The Nationals led 3-1 after Bell’s solo homer in the sixth inning off Pittsburgh’s Sam Howard, but Rogers could not make it out of the seventh after giving up a leadoff homer to Anthony Alford.
“They were pretty aggressive, and didn’t really get to too many two-strike counts there,” Rogers told reporters afterward. “Couldn’t really put anybody away, but my defense did a heck of a job all night making plays there, so kudos to them, and just kept the team in and gave us a chance tonight.”
Andres Machado got the Nationals out of the seventh on two pitches, then worked a scoreless eighth against the heart of the Pirates’ order.
But with regular closer Kyle Finnegan overworked and unavailable, makeshift closer Murphy and emergency lefty Baldonado could each get only one out in the ninth.
Murphy started his first career save opportunity by giving up a single to Alford and walking Ben Gamel, but not before a wild pitch put Alford on second anyway. Another wild pitch put both runners in scoring position before Cole Tucker popped out to short.
“When we brought in Murphy at the end of the game, that matched up well for him,” Bogar said afterward. “He threw the first two sliders to the first hitters, then they got a base hit, and it kind of went sideways on him. He’s got to be able to throw strikes there, and be competitive, but he came back and pitched well against Tucker and got the pop-up.”
With only left-handed hitters on the Pittsburgh bench, Bogar went to the lefty, Baldonado, who gave up Colin Moran’s groundout to score the tying run and blow the save.
Then he surrendered Ke’Brian Hayes’ second hit of the night, a single to right against a drawn-in and shifted infield, that scored Gamel for the winning run.
Although he allowed baserunners in every inning but the fifth, Rogers got out of jams by working quickly and spotting his fastball, despite not having his slider working.
“Felt pretty good physically all night,” he told reporters afterward. “I got to find that slider, it’s been pretty non-existent the last two times out, so if we can get that going, hopefully we’ve got room to improve.”
Rogers gave up runs on Hayes’s sacrifice fly to score Tucker in the third and Alford’s homer, but left with a 3-2 lead after allowing eight hits, one walk, and one strikeout.
He escaped a two-out, first-and-third situation in the sixth when Jacob Stallings got under a 97 mph fastball over the plate, flying out to Lane Thomas in center.
“They hit a good amount of balls pretty hard tonight,” Rogers said.
“But for me I’m just trying to work fast and throw quality strikes. There’s a difference between just throwing the strikes, and throwing quality executed strikes.”
Bell, who spent the first five seasons of his career in Pittsburgh, hit his homer on a letter-high, center-cut, 93 mph fastball. The shot reached the deepest part of PNC Park, the 410-foot nook in left-center field.
“Right-handed, I think that was the best ball that I’ve hit, especially here, so kudos to [hitting coach] Kevin Long for all the work that we’ve been putting in in the cage and it’s nice to finally see that right-handed.
“I knew it was gone, just based off the feel and knowing the park, but like I said, I just haven’t felt that right-handed. So it was nice to finally feel that.”
Bogar managed the Nationals in the game after Major League Baseball announced that Martinez had been suspended over this week’s dustup in Atlanta.
Nats’ lefty Sean Nolin also began serving a five-game suspension for twice throwing at Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman in apparent retaliation for Will Smith hitting Juan Soto.
Nolin insisted the pitches to Freeman were unintentional, and Martinez denied ordering them. However home plate umpire Lance Barksdale and his crew chief quickly agreed that Nolin should be ejected.