WASHINGTON -- Right-handers Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole, the top overall picks in the 2009 and 2011 First-Year Player Draft, respectively, were in a pitchers' duel on Saturday night at PNC Park. It turned out that Strasburg would lose the game, 3-2.
The Nationals have lost four consecutive games, five out of their last six and are a game under .500 with a 24-25 record -- not the kind of record they were expecting when the season started. Several experts predicted this team had a good chance to win the World Series this year. The last time the Nationals had a record under .500 was Aug. 22 of last year when they were 63-64.
As long as they keep losing, the Nationals are going to miss players such as third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and outfielder Bryce Harper, who are not expected to be back on the field until close to the All-Star break. At least the team will get Adam LaRoche back in the fold on Sunday afternoon.
"In terms of the season, yeah, [it's early]," Jayson Werth said. "The big thing we have going for us is, we are banged up, but we get Roche back tomorrow. The thing is, we are battling. There are not too many games where we're not in it, especially when it comes late in the game. We are playing good baseball. The results aren't there. As time goes on and we start getting healthier, we'll be all right. We definitely need to keep our heads above water right now until those guys get healthy."
Strasburg had a 2-1 lead going into the bottom of the seventh inning, but Pittsburgh scored two runs to take the lead.
With runners on second and third with one out, Jose Tabata flied out to center fielder Denard Span, scoring Russell Martin to tie the game at 2. One batter later, after Travis Snider was walked intentionally, Josh Harrison singled up the middle, scoring Starling Marte for the go-ahead run. Prior to that at-bat, Harrison was 0-for-3 against Strasburg. Williams has no regrets leaving Strasburg in the game. Williams called Strasburg the ace and had him throw 110 pitches on Saturday.
"It was a tough challenge for all our hitters tonight, and I think we kept battling, kept going up there and trying to make [Strasburg] work," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Low pitches early, we got to string him out a little bit more late. We actually took some real good swings on some of his secondary pitches to get ourselves into that position. Tabata hit something soft for the sac fly, and Josh was able to stay with a changeup and hit it right back through the box."
Strasburg lasted seven innings, allowed three runs on seven hits and struck out seven batters. Asked how disheartening it was to lose the game, Strasburg said, "It's tough. We are pressing pretty hard. We are trying to get back on track. It is what it is. We have a new day tomorrow. You have to keep grinding."
Cole was dealing as well, allowing two runs in six innings. He, too, struck out seven in the game. The Nationals were able to get to Cole in the fourth inning, when Ian Desmond hit a solo home run to give Washington a 1-0 lead.
After the Pirates tied the score at 1 in the bottom of the fourth inning on a solo home run by Neil Walker, Washington took back the one-run lead off Cole in the fifth inning, when Anthony Rendon scored on a bloop single by Wilson Ramos.
The Nationals continue to have problems with runners in scoring position. For the game, they went 1-for-5 and must find a way to get better in that area.
"I think we are in one of those stretches offensively, where it's not going right," Williams said. "We created some opportunities for ourselves tonight -- stealing some bases, getting guys out there -- but it didn't happen.
"Desi's homer gave us one. It's frustrating. They are all frustrated," Williams said. "My job at this point is, be positive, encourage them. We know it's there because we've seen it, so it's a question of staying focused and being prepared for tomorrow. That's all we can do at this point."
Bill Ladson is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, All Nats All the time. He also can be found on Twitter @WashingNats. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.