WASHINGTON -- What better way for Francisco Liriano to rebound from his worst outing of the year than by pitching his best outing in years?
Liriano took a no-hit bid into the sixth inning and bested Stephen Strasburg in a pitchers' duel as the Pirates beat the Washington Nationals, 4-2, Wednesday night at Nationals Park.
Liriano allowed two hits over 7 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out eight and walking three to earn his team-leading 10th victory and give the Pirates their fourth win in a row. He received a rousing ovation from the thousands of Pirates fans were among the 33,636, in attendance when he walked off the field with two outs in the eighth.
Strasburg was just as impressive, allowing one run on two hits in eight innings, throwing 118 pitches. He struck out 12, his highest strikeout total since June 8, 2012 when he erased 13 Boston Red Sox.
With the victory, the Pirates (60-39) matched their high-water mark for this season at 21 games over .500.
It wasn't just the stat line that made this Liriano's best performance in years. It was the quality of his pitches. His fastball hit 97 mph for the first time since 2010. And his sharp, breaking slider climbed to 89 mph, which makes it nearly unhittable.
And, for a while, Liriano was unhittable. He faced two batters over the minimum through the first 52/3 innings, both reaching base on walks.
He has credited his resurgence this season to a tweaked delivery and his decision to try not to "overthrow" his fastball. But he was able to put some more juice on his power pitches Wednesday night while maintaining his command.
"I'm not trying to throw hard," Liriano said. "I'm not worried about speed right now. I just want to make sure I locate my pitches."
What made his fastball more devastating was that it was "moving all over the place," catcher Michael McKenry said. That, and his changeup, kept Washington hitters on roller skates.
"When he has his three pitches, it's really, really tough," McKenry said. "He kept them off balance all night."
Liriano struggled in his first outing after the All-Star break, allowing a season-high five earned runs in a season-low 41/3 innings.
"I think he was disappointed in that start and did some hard work in between," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said.
Anthony Rendon broke up Liriano's no-hit bid with two outs in the sixth on a ball that Pedro Alvarez nearly turned into an out.
Rendon ripped a ground ball to the left side of the infield, and Alvarez made a diving stop on the ball. But as he tried to rise and fire the ball to first, he couldn't make a clean transition from his glove to his right hand. He bobbled it a second before losing complete control while Rendon reached first safely.
That was the start of the first serious jam for Liriano. He walked Ryan Zimmerman, putting two runners on as Jayson Werth, the most consistent offensive player for the Nationals (48-53), stepped to the plate. But Liriano disposed of Werth on four pitches, getting the outfielder to watch strike three to escape the inning.
Even though Alvarez couldn't turn the tricky play on defense in the sixth, his earlier offense more than made up for it.
Alvarez laced a home run over the raised wall in right-center field to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead in the second. It was his first career hit off of Strasburg after he started his career 0 for 5 with four strikeouts against him.
"That ball Pedro hit gave me goose bumps," Hurdle said, adding it showed good power because he expected it to bounce off the wall.
That fastball over the middle of the plate was the biggest mistake for Strasburg, who lowered his ERA to 2.85 despite his eighth loss this season.
"After Pedro hit the ball up, Strasburg pretty much said, 'You're done,' " Hurdle said.
The Pirates added three runs in the ninth, highlighted by Neil Walker's RBI double and McKenry's two-run single.
Werth hit a two-run homer off of Justin Wilson in the ninth before Mark Melancon entered the game and picked up his third save this season, the first since Jason Grilli went on the disabled list Tuesday.
Michael Sanserino: email@example.com, 412-263-1722 and Twitter @msanserino. First Published July 25, 2013 1:15 AM