Bob Smizik: This Pirates loss stings

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This one hurts. This one sends the Pirates reeling. This one they’ll remember, even though they’ll want to forget.

It was a staggeringly tough loss to the Washington Nationals last night. The Pirates had the lead with their best reliever in the game. It wasn’t enough.

They led, 3-0, going into the bottom of the eighth and had Tony Watson, who was expected to turn the game over to Mark Melancon in the ninth, on the mound. It never happened. The National scored three runs off Watson with the final two coming on a home run by Adam LaRoche.

With the game tied, it wasn’t Melancon but Justin Wilson who came on to pitch the ninth. He never retired a batter as a walk, a wild pitch and a double ended the game. The loss dropped the Pirates to 4 1/2 games behind Milwaukee, which beat Los Angeles and Clayton Kershaw, 3-2.

No one to blame here. Washington was the better team. They rallied against Watson, who had been brilliant most of the season and who hadn’t allowed a run in his nine previous appearances.

Plain and simple, without Andrew McCutchen and with both Jordy Mercer and Neil Walker out of the starting lineup last night, the Pirates are not the same team that rallied from a bad April to become a contender in the National League Central Division.

The staggering list of injuries was bound to catch up to them and it has, not unexpectedly against the strong teams they’re currently playing. The loss was their fourth straight -- two to Detroit and now two to Washington. It is their longest losing streak since losing four in a row to Cincinnati and St. Louis in April.

It doesn’t get any easier this evening as they face Doug Fister, who is 12-3 with a 2.34 ERA. In his past four starts, Fister has allowed two earned runs in 28 1/3 innings (0.64 ERA). Washington has won six of his past seven starts. Edinson Volquez pitches for the Pirates.

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• Jeff Locke took a large step toward securing his spot in the rotation -- and removing Charlie Morton from it -- with a solid performance. He pitched 5 2/3 innings and allowed no runs and four hits while walking two and striking out six. He was relieved with two out in the sixth by Jared Hughes, who got the final out.

Before the game manager Clint Hurdle said Gerrit Cole, after another strong rehab start, was ready to rejoin the rotation. Based on how poorly Morton has pitched recently -- an ERA of 6.00 in his past seven starts -- Locke’s performance should make the decision and easy one for Hurdle. Morton was scheduled to pitch again on Wednesday, which would be the fifth day since Cole’s rehab start Friday night.

• Pedro Alvarez started again at third base but was removed in the Washington seventh with the Pirates leading, 3-0. Walker entered the game to play second base and Jayson Nix, who had been playing second, moved to third. Alvarez was 0-for-3 with two strikeouts. He has not homered since July 11.

• Because they are carrying only three outfielders, the Pirates had to start Gregory Polanco and Travis Snider, both lefties, against Washington starter Gio Gonzalez, a left-hander. Polanco was 0-for-4, Snider 1-for-4. Polanco was batting .171 against lefties going into the game and is in an 0-for-15 slump.

• The Pirates scored all their runs in the third with Starling Marte driving in one with a double and Gaby Sanchez two with a single

• Walker is expected back in the lineup this afternoon but it does not look good for Mercer's return.

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