Starling Marte started the bottom of the first inning by parking Gio Gonzalez’s first pitch in the stands. Jordy Mercer followed that with a double before Andrew McCutchen reached on an error and Gaby Sanchez walked to load the bases with nobody out.
It appeared as if the Pirates had the Nationals’ number with one run already in and several more sure to come from the bases loaded, no outs situation, but that is not how things worked out. Russell Martin and Michael McKenry struck out before Brandon Inge grounded out to end the inning with Marte’s solo shot being the only run scored.
Gonzalez rebounded from his horrendous start to stymie the Pittsburgh offense for much of the afternoon and the Nationals offense picked up the slack as Washington beat the Pirates 6-2 to win the rubber match between the two clubs at PNC Park.
“We had a chance to push him out the door and create some separation early and we missed that opportunity,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He put a foot down and all we had was Wandy’s single until the sixth inning.”
Wandy Rodriguez got that single in the second inning and Marte followed by reaching on a fielder’s choice but after that it was slim pickings for the Pirates.
“(Gonzalez) locked down his command,” Hurdle said. “The breaking ball came in to play and the changeup challenged us.”
While Pittsburgh struggled to put together anything consistent at the plate, the Nationals got their act together after Bryce Harper was ejected in the top of the first for arguing a strike three call that third base umpire John Hirschbeck ruled he went around on. It did not appear as if Harper’s actions merited an ejection, but there is always the possibility he used one of the “magic words’ umpires do not like and was told to watch the rest of the game from the clubhouse.
Ryan Zimmerman walked and would later score in the second inning to even the score and singled before eventually scoring on a Danny Espinosa home run in the fourth to give Washington the lead for good. Rodriguez went on to pitch through the sixth inning and finished the game having thrown 117 pitches (77 for strikes) with seven strikeouts and just one walk while allowing the three earned runs.
“He had 80 (pitches) through four. No doubt the deep counts were problematic early,” Hurdle said. “He was able to make an in-game adjustment and that’s really why we let him keep going. I wanted to show faith in him being our No. 2 guy. I think we found a little something there that is going to help him moving forward so we wanted him to go out and pitch the sixth inning as well and not back off early.”
Hurdle said a common problem for Pirates pitchers — both starters and relievers — has been capitalizing on two-strike counts and that he saw more of that in Sunday’s loss.
“The two-strike put away pitch has not been where we’d like it to be and for him today that happened as much as anything,” he said.
The Nationals added three runs on one swing by Tyler Moore in the eighth inning to pad their lead. Roger Bernadina, who came in to replace Harper after the first inning ejection, started the inning with a single and after Adam LaRoche was intentionally walked Moore (who had struck out three times to that point in the game) made the Pirates pay.
Pittsburgh now has an off day on Monday before welcoming the Seattle Mariners to PNC Park for a two-game series before opening a four-game series against the New York Mets at Citi Field starting Thursday.
Jose Contreras made his first appearance for the Pirates on Sunday, and it was a successful one.
Contreras pitched the seventh inning for Pittsburgh and after giving up a single to Wilson Ramos to start the inning retired the next three Nationals (including consecutive strikeouts) to end the inning.
“Liked what I saw — velocity, a good split, free and easy,” Hurdle said. “In the one inning I thought he was fine. Four out of four first pitch strikes is always a good thing. Back-to-back punchouts. Looked good.”