WASHINGTON -- Amid all the distractions of recent days, from Neil Walker's grand homecoming, then facing elite pitchers in Tim Lincecum, Carlos Silva and Stephen Strasburg, then the debuts of Brad Lincoln and Jose Tabata, it might be that a little something has gone unnoticed about these Pirates ...
They are still losing.
The 4-2 loss to Washington Thursday night at Nationals Park, one in which Zach Duke allowed three runs and the offense could not overcome it, was the fifth in a row. And, perhaps as evidence of how numbing the losing has become over all this time, the Pirates have, without raising much fuss on any front, lost 11 of the past 14 and fallen to a season-low 14 games under .500 at 23-37.
That is five games worse than their 60-game mark a year ago, when they wound up with 99 losses.
Game: Pirates vs. Detroit Tigers, 7:05 p.m., Comerica Park.
TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Pitching: RHP Ross Ohlendorf (0-3, 4.30) vs. RHP Jeremy Bonderman (2-4, 4.40).
Season series: First meeting.
Key matchup: Ohlendorf finally getting a win. He has picthed three consecutive quality starts with little to show for it.
Of note: The Pirates, finally beginning interleague play, are 71-110 overall but were 8-6 last summer.
Oh, and in case this slipped detection, too: Last place is home once again.
"It's frustrating, it really is," right fielder Garrett Jones said. "We're playing hard, but it just feels like things aren't going our way. We're not getting that one hit or one pitch or one play that we need."
The point has merit, as the Pirates look far better than when they were giving up double-digit runs every other day in April. In this streak, they lost once in extra innings, twice by just two runs.
Even so ...
"We need to find a way," manager John Russell said. "We need a big hit, really. Until we score more runs, every pitch is going to mean something."
That was underscored again and again on this night.
Duke extended his inconsistencies to a third consecutive start in allowing three runs and eight hits over five-plus innings, including home runs by Adam Dunn and Josh Willingham in the fourth. In the next inning, a single, a balk and another single accompanied by third baseman Andy LaRoche's throwing error, and the Nationals were up, 3-0.
The Pirates pushed back with two in the sixth on back-to-back doubles off Livan Hernandez by Duke and Jose Tabata, a single by Walker that advanced Tabata and a sacrifice fly by Andrew McCutchen.
The bullpen would make that 3-2 lead hold for a while.
When Duke allowed Washington to load the bases with no outs in the sixth, Russell turned to Evan Meek, and Meek coolly got a soft liner to Walker for a 4-6 double play and a grounder to end the inning without damage.
That lowered Meek's ERA, best among all relievers in Major League Baseball, to 0.76. And that figure, as researched by the Elias Sports Bureau after the game, is the lowest for any Pittsburgh reliever through June 10 since 1918, when Roy G. Saunders had a 0.64 mark.
Meek's big inning raised the Pirates' spirits, too.
"He was dominant," Russell said. "And it really gave us a lift."
"The energy was great," catcher Jason Jaramillo said. "That's where the momentum should shift."
If not there, then certainly the next inning: Joel Hanrahan allowed a leadoff double, but he got Dunn to fly out then fanned Ryan Zimmerman and Willingham, again without damage. The situation with Zimmerman -- two bases open and a double play in order -- might have called for an intentional walk, but Russell showed faith in Hanrahan and was rewarded.
"That's what those guys are capable of doing," Russell said of Meek and Hanrahan. "We've got confidence in them."
It did not matter. The Pirates mustered one single in each of the final three innings, Brendan Donnelly allowed Washington to find insurance on Mike Morse's home run in the eighth, and Tyler Clippard recorded the save to complete the Nationals' sweep.
Duke, now 3-7 with a 5.30 ERA, has allowed 30 hits over 16 1/3 innings in his past three starts, and five of those have been home runs.
"He was OK, threw the ball all right," Russell said. "There were home runs again, but they were solo shots. We still had a chance to win."
Duke looked and sounded down, but he acknowledged some bright spots.
"I thought my fastball was better," he said. "I left a couple changeups up for singles. The curveball was good. It was one of those nights where, unfortunately, the few mistakes I made got punched."
Any extra pressure with so little offensive support?
"No. It's still the starting pitcher's responsibility to go deep into the game and give the team a chance to win. Our offense will come around. They'll score runs."
The Pirates begin interleague play tonight in Detroit.