May 24, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT
GAME IN A NUTSHELL: A rare showdown between fellow No. 1 overall draft picks played out as most would have hoped, with Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole trading blows for much of the night in a tense, low-scoring ballgame. Strasburg, the top pick in 2009, appeared to have the edge on Cole, the top pick in 2011, but then things quickly fell apart in the seventh.
The Nationals led 2-1 thanks to Ian Desmond’s solo homer in the fourth and Wilson Ramos’ RBI single in the fifth. Strasburg took the mound for the bottom of the seventh with a chance to hold the lead and then hand this one over to his bullpen. But the big right-hander surrendered a pair of runs in the inning — with a curious decision by manager Matt Williams playing a role — and wound up departing in line for the loss.
Needing a late rally against a depleted Pirates bullpen, the Nationals couldn’t produce the wining rally. Thus, they lost their fourth straight and fell to 24-25 for the season, the first time they’ve been under .500 since they were 63-64 on Aug. 22, 2013.
HITTING LOWLIGHT: Against a fireballer like Cole, the Nationals figured not to get many chances to drive in runs. So even though they took the lead the in the top of the fifth on Ramos’ RBI single, their inability to add on and deliver a potential knockout punch to Cole proved costly by night’s end. With the bases loaded and two out, Greg Dobbs stepped to the plate. The veteran first baseman singled in each of his first two at-bats, but he grounded out to first in the situation that really mattered. Yes, the Nationals still led 2-1 at that point, with Strasburg on the mound. But a 3-1 (or 4-1) lead right there would’ve looked a whole lot better.
PITCHING LOWLIGHT: For much of the night, Strasburg was in top form, as effective and as efficient as he’s ever been. But he started to fade in the seventh, and he paid the price for it. With two on and one out, he allowed a sac fly lineout to Jose Tabata. That tied the game 2-2. Then came a curious decision by Matt Williams, who had Strasburg intentionally walk the .214-hitting Travis Snider, bringing the recently hot Josh Harrison to the plate. Why not let Strasburg (or a lefty) face Snider? And if not, why not bring in a fresh right-hander to face Harrison, with Strasburg sitting on 108 pitches and fading? In the end, Harrison smoked a base hit up the middle off Strasburg, who despite pitching well most of the night wound up taking the loss.
KEY STAT: In 330 plate appearances over the last two seasons, Danny Espinosa has struck out 100 times while drawing only 10 walks.
UP NEXT: This four-game series wraps up at 1:35 p.m. Sunday when Doug Fister looks for his third consecutive strong outing for the Nationals against the win-less Francisco Liriano. Adam LaRoche is expected to come off the DL and start at first base for the Nats.
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
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As ESPN-980 AM's Nats Insider, Mark makes daily appearances on the station's various shows. Here's the 2015 schedule (subject to change)...
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