There are 162 games in a baseball season and the monotony can sometimes breed the mundane. The one contested between the Pirates and the Washington Nationals Saturday night at PNC Park was different from the beginning and did not disappoint the sellout crowd of 38,889 that came to watch two of the premier power pitchers in the game square off for the first time.
For only the third time in a decade, Major League Baseball fans were treated to former No. 1 draft picks dueling on the mound, and right-handed pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg lived up to the hype.
The Pirates broke open the pitchers’ duel in the seventh inning with two runs and went on to a 3-2 victory.
Strasburg had a 2-1 lead and had allowed just four hits through the first six innings. But the Pirates tied the score on a sacrifice fly by Jose Tabata, then grabbed the lead when Josh Harrison singled home Starling Marte.
Strasburg intentionally walked pinch-hitter Travis Snider to get to Harrison. Snider stepped to the plate with a .214 average, while Harrison entered the game with a .333 average in May and promptly singled up the middle for the go-ahead run.
“Not necessarily surprised,” Harrison said of Snider being walked in front of him. “They fell behind and with a base open that can typically be the move a manager wants to make. In my third at-bat I felt like I had a pretty good at-bat. When I went up there for the fourth time, I felt like I had seen everything he had thrown. I was just looking to barrel something up.”
Washington manager Matt Williams said he walked Snider because he was ahead in the count, 2-0, and is a good fastball hitter. Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who has ridden hot-hitting Harrison the past few weeks, did not mind seeing Harrison come to the plate in that situation.
“Not at all,” Hurdle said. “The at-bat before, he stayed on a breaking ball and drove it to the biggest part of the ballpark. It was a tough challenge for all of our hitters. We kept battling and trying to make him work. Josh was able to stay on a changeup. He played well.”
Jared Hughes (3-1) threw one inning and was the winner. Mark Melancon pitched the ninth inning to pick up a save.
Strasburg (3-4), the first pick of the 2009 draft, was the loser. He threw 110 pitches, allowed three runs, seven hits and struck out seven.
Cole, the first pick of the 2011 draft, gave up two runs in six innings. He threw a career-high 112 pitches, struck out seven and allowed five hits.
“It was a gritty, gritty outing,” Hurdle said. “He had to battle two big innings. He had a 27-pitch inning and a 32-pitch inning. He just kept after it. He loves to compete. He doesn’t ever think he should give up anything. The changeup worked well for him. He was gritty and he battled. He gave us what we needed.”
Cole labored at times. He walked three and hit a batter, but was able to strand eight Nationals on base, including three in the fifth.
“They put together some good at-bats, ran the pitch count up,” he said. “I wasn’t as efficient as I wanted to be in the middle of the ballgame, but at the same time I just tried to limit the damage.”
As for the showdown with Strasburg, Cole did not let on that it meant much to him. More than being part of a marquee matchup, Cole merely said he knew he had to battle because he knew the offense would have limited opportunities to score.
“I’m glad we pulled out the win,” he said. “I anticipated it being tight. They got one and I didn’t anticipate us getting one back for another couple of innings. We punched right back, which was great. It was timely hitting and really good execution. The damage was done before he could blink.”
Both pitchers waltzed through the first three innings with little problem. The Nationals got on the board first when shortstop Ian Desmond parked an 0-1 pitch into the left-center field bleachers for a 1-0 lead in the fourth.
In the bottom half, the Pirates answered with a home run to tie the score. Neil Walker caught up to a high fastball and hit his 10th of the season to make it 1-1.
The Nationals retook the lead in the fifth after Wilson Ramos’ bloop single scored Anthony Rendon.
“I put that ball up on Ramos’ hands and he was able to fight it off,” Cole said.
“That was nowhere near a strike and pretty much near where we wanted it. You can’t beat yourself up like that. You just have to keep making pitches.”
Cole did and the bullpen shut it down after that. Now the Pirates, who improved to 22-26, will go for the four-game sweep today.
Ray Fittipaldo: email@example.com and Twitter @rayfitt1.
First Published May 24, 2014 10:40 PM