PITTSBURGH -- Tight game. Ninth inning. Truth or Dare, baseball style.
Saturday at PNC Park, the Washington Nationals twice played that game with Russell Martin. He dared them, then they dared him.
Martin lost twice and, not coincidentally, the Bucs lost once, 5-4 to the Nats.
In a 4-4 tie in the top of the ninth, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, two relative plodders with a total of 36 career steals in 2,300 games between them, pulled a double steal while left-hander Tony Watson was locked in on the batter.
That gamble paid off, as Tyler Moore followed with the game-winning sacrifice fly.
"They went at the right time, with Watson dialed in on the hitter," said Martin, who didn't even get off a throw. "They had a great jump, and I rushed and couldn't get a good grip. Even if I make a great throw, I don't know if I had enough time. It was more them doing something special than us doing something wrong."
A few minutes later, something even more special answered Martin's dare. He led off the bottom of the ninth with a liner onto the grass in left-center and never hesitated going for two. Center fielder Roger Bernadina cut off the ball, pivoted -- he throws left-handed -- and one-hopped a throw to second that nailed Martin.
"He stops, turns around -- left-handed hitter -- makes a perfect one-hop throw ... you're out," said Martin, wincing. "Man ... it was an aggressive mistake. In my mind, I was being aggressive, because being on second with nobody out and a left-handed hitter [Pedro Alvarez, with righty reliever Rafael Soriano pitching] is a huge advantage."
Martin's manager was resigned to seeing it the same way.
"The guy you commend is their center fielder," Clint Hurdle said. "That's a Major League play, in the ninth inning of a close game, cutting that ball off and getting it right on the base."
Bernadina's play helped throw a wrench into the familiar plot on which the Pirates were working.
In this young season, they had already rope-a-doped Mat Latos, Tim Hudson, Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook, among others. The Pirates wait them out, then take out their relief.
Stephen Strasburg was getting the same treatment, as the Bucs kept him to a 4-4 standoff on a pair of two-run homers. This was a major step, given how he had toyed with them in the past.
But moral is the only victory the Bucs got this time, as the Pirates bullpen gave it up and the Nationals got it.
Erratic pitching had kept the Nationals in the game and, finally, in the ninth it took the Bucs out of it. Watson hit Zimmerman in the foot with a pitch and LaRoche singled before the critical double steal into scoring position.
Zimmerman was the third batter to be hit by Pittsburgh pitchers, who also issued six walks.
"All those free 90s added up," Hurdle said. "We put a couple of good swings on Strasburg but, at the end of the day, they just played better than us."
It began as a duel of contrasts, Strasburg's right-handed fire against Jeff Locke's left-handed wiles.
Starling Marte delivered the first blow, following Clint Barmes' single in the third with a drive into the right-center bleachers for his fourth homer to give the Bucs a 2-1 lead.
"He threw me a fastball away. It's what I was looking for and got a very good swing at it," Marte said.
The next go-ahead strike came from a most unlikely source. After Jordy Mercer singled to start the fifth, Barmes unloaded on a Strasburg fastball to power it into the Pirates' bullpen to make it 4-2.
Barmes may not go yard very often, but two things he does well is stand up to tough pitchers and hit in daylight. His 10th-inning double last June helped end the scoreless season of Cincinnati fireman Aroldis Chapman. And Saturday's 2-for-3 improved his daytime average for the season to .381 (8-for-21).
Locke still hadn't allowed a hit through the third, but his 15-inning scoreless streak nonetheless ended in that frame. He was responsible for putting on Bernadina -- hitting him with a pitch -- but Barmes' throwing error sent him to third and Ian Desmond's sacrifice fly scored him.
Washington's second run was similar. Zimmerman led off the fourth with a clean hit -- the Nationals' first -- into the left-field corner that rattled off the wall past Marte for a triple, which LaRoche converted with another sacrifice fly to tie it at 2.
Marte actually threw his glove at Zimmerman's caroming ball, in a futile attempt to keep it from rolling away.
"I tried to stop it, but I missed," Marte said, grinning. "You can do that."
The Nationals wasted little time neutralizing Barmes' go-ahead blow, once again profiting from Locke's control lapses. Bryce Harper led off the sixth with a single, and an ensuing walk of Zimmerman got Locke out of the game.
Another lefty, Justin Wilson, took over and wound up striking out the side. One problem, two actually: He walked the first man he faced, LaRoche, to load the bases and surrendered a bouncing single up the middle to Wilson Ramos that drove in two and made it 4-4.
Locke permitted only three hits in his five-plus innings, but his three walks and a hit batter contributed to three of the four runs off him.
"I thought he was in and out of rhythm a little bit," said Hurdle, by way of explaining the decision to remove Locke after 74 pitches. "I thought we had the best shot of getting out of that inning with a lead by bringing in Wilson and his [harder fastball]."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.