The Pirates were looking to complete a four-game sweep Sunday, but yet another poor start by Francisco Liriano proved to be too much to overcome.
Liriano gave up a double to the first batter he faced and lasted only five innings as the Pirates lost to the Washington Nationals, 5-2, before a crowd of 38,047 at PNC Park.
The loss snapped a season-high four-game winning streak by the Pirates (22-27), who must regroup and go on a 10-game road trip that touches both coasts and includes series against the New York Mets, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres.
Liriano (0-5) has now seen his ERA balloon to 5.06 and summed it up after the game when he said, quite simply, "I didn't do my job."
Manager Clint Hurdle said Liriano hasn't been able to find a comfort zone this season, and while he might be pressing and searching for answers, he needs to settle in and start making better pitches.
"I thought he had sequences of all three of his pitches in some of his spots, but the consistency drawn out over the five innings was not there," Hurdle said. "It is the overall consistency that is complicating this for him. It may be less movement or maybe it may be command, and maybe they are the same thing."
Liriano gave up six hits and four runs -- all earned-- struck out five and walked four to go along with two wild pitches.
Denard Span led off the game with a double to right field and Anthony Rendon walked. After Jayson Werth struck out, Adam LaRoche grounded out but moved the runners to second and third.
Span then scored on a wild pitch, Rendon scored on a single by Ian Desmond and the Nationals led, 2-0.
That deficit could have been worse, but third baseman Pedro Alvarez made a diving catch of a sharply hit line drive off the bat of Kevin Frandsen to end the inning and save at least one run.
Span got things started again in the fifth as he led off with a single and scored on a triple by Rendon. Rendon scored on another wild pitch by Liriano and the Nationals led, 4-0, heading into the bottom of the fifth.
Nationals pitcher Doug Fister did a good job of keeping the Pirates at arm's length as he cruised through the first four innings with little trouble. In the fifth, he got pinch-hitter Jose Tabata to ground into an inning-ending double play to escape his first jam.
"He is a very good pitcher and we have seen that before from him," Hurdle said. "There is a little bit of a rush and a hurry to his delivery, which you don't see very often. He throws a lot of pitches that look like balls, initially, that end up as strikes.
"He controls bat speed, he was on and off the gas. We were able to stretch him out a little bit late, but we couldn't get that knockout blow."
Fister (2-1) went 51/3 innings and gave up six hits and one run with four strikeouts. The Pirates finally got to him in the bottom of the sixth when Josh Harrison led off the inning with a home run and Neil Walker and Ike Davis followed with singles to force a pitching change.
But reliever Craig Stammen got Starling Marte to bounce into an inning-ending double play to halt the rally.
The Nationals (25-25) then used three singles to push the lead to 5-1 in the top of the seventh and held on for the win, though there were some nervous moments late that they were able to pitch their way out of.
The Pirates got a run back in the eighth when Harrison and Walker hit one-out singles and, after an Andrew McCutchen strikeout, Davis singled to drive in Harrison.
That left the Pirates with runners at first and third with two outs and the potential tying run at the plate, but Marte struck out to end the inning.
Davis was 2 for 4 and Walker had three hits, but it was not enough as the Pirates weren't able to get that big hit to break open an inning.
That was part of the frustration for Hurdle, who said the Pirates missed some prime opportunities to score runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings on a day that their starting pitcher struggled.
"It is a team game," Hurdle said. "And we had three opportunities to push runs across and only came up with two. And we had the guys up that you'd like to have up in those situations."
Harrison, who has been the hitting star of late, said the offense needs to produce and pick up the pitching for the Pirates to turn their season around.
"Our pitchers have bailed us out so many times and kept us in games that we hate to let them down in those situations," Harrison said. "That is how baseball is sometimes, you just struggle to get big hits in big spots at times.
"We need to a better job of capitalizing on those chances when we have runners on base and we have chances to score.
"That is what good teams do -- they win games different ways -- and we believe we can be a very good team and are a good team. But today we left too many runs out there to win."
Paul Zeise: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1720 and Twitter @paulzeise
First Published May 25, 2014 5:33 PM