Prior to the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Pirates (46-44) fought hard to get back into contention for not just a National League playoff berth, but an NL Central spot, making Friday night’s 5-1 loss to the Washington Nationals (55-36) all the more disappointing.
Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg has had a 2016 season of historic proportions, and this victory boosts his record to 13-0 on the season. He’s the second pitcher in the last 30 years to start a season that way.
And despite how good Strasburg has been, the Pirates took the early, 1-0 lead when shortstop Jordy Mercer’s fifth-inning single deflected off Clint Robinson’s glove at first base and scored Starling Marte.
Pittsburgh escaped a potentially dangerous fourth inning when starter Francisco Liriano allowed a leadoff single to Trea Turner and walked Michael Taylor with Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper due up.
But, instead of panicking, Liriano got Werth to ground into a force out, and Liriano got Harper hit to into an inning-ending double play.
However, in the fifth inning, Liriano’s momentum stalled, and Robinson singled to send Wilson Ramos and tie the game. Robinson’s hit was the third of three consecutive singles that inning.
Hurdle trusted Liriano to pitch the seventh inning, but he walked Danny Espinosa on four pitches, and another Robinson single put runners on first and third base.
With Liriano (5-9, 5.11 ERA, 1.61 WHIP) out, reliever Neftali Feliz came in. Espinosa scored on Strasburg’s sac bunt plus a fielding error from Pirates first baseman David Freese. Two batters later, Feliz unfurled a wild pitch, and Robinson scored. Taylor then added a a two-run home run. Feliz was finally yanked when he walked Werth.
It took reliever Arquimedes Caminero, a third Pirates pitcher, to get out of the seventh inning.
It’s innings like these that make it easy to forget about the progress the Pirates have made to improve upon habits that hurt the team throughout June.
Catcher Francisco Cervelli (broken hamate bone) went 2-for-4 with a single and double in his second day of a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis. Pitcher Ryan Vogelsong (facial fractures) went six shutout innings with two hits allowed at Double-A Altoona.
Pitcher Jonathon Niese has been taken out of the Pirates rotation and been indefinitely moved to the bullpen. This season, Niese is 7-6 with a 5.13 ERA — he allowed 20 home runs in his first 18 starts. After his most recent start, he told reporters his results weren’t where they should be and that the first half of this season was the worst stretch of his career. Niese vowed to do better in the second half, but, like last year, it’ll be in the bullpen.
Pirates general manager Neal Huntington answered questioned about Niese earlier Friday in an interview with 93.7 FM Fan Morning Show.
“Given the thinness of the starting pitching market, given the dollars that we had available, we felt that that was our best return, and it has not played out that way,” Huntington said. “That’s a challenge, we own that, we accept that. At the time, Jon was one of the better starting pitchers available on the market given what we typically can do in this revenue stream, and that’s the reality.”
Gerrit Cole (5-4, 2.77 ERA) is expected to make his first start since June 10 (against Washington) when he was placed on the DL with a right triceps strain. Cole is 2-0 with a 1.74 ERA in three starts against the Nationals.
When Cole is called up, rookie Josh Bell may be the corresponding move to be sent back to Triple-A, even though Bell is batting 1.000 with a home run, four RBIs and two walks. However, he’s simply blocked for playing time. He told reporters when he was first called up that he was only there to get his feet wet, but, even in a small sample size, he’s excited Pirates fans.
Image credit: Chris Szagola/AP File