WASHINGTON (AP) — Stephen Strasburg fiddled with the bottom of his gray T-shirt and stared blankly ahead, unaccustomed to his Washington Nationals struggling day after day the way they are at the moment.
“We need to win some games,” Strasburg said. “It’s getting to the point where our back’s against the wall.”
A popular pick to follow up last year’s majors-leading 98 wins and playoff appearance with a deep run, Washington is in a real rut right now. Wasting Strasburg’s 12-strikeout performance, and held without a hit by Pittsburgh’s Francisco Liriano until the sixth inning, the Nationals lost to the Pirates 4-2 Wednesday night, their sixth consecutive defeat since the All-Star break.
“When things get tough … your true colors really come out. It’s all about what type of person you are. Are you the type that’s going to sit there and look in the mirror and do everything you can to be better out there? Or are you going to start pointing fingers?” Strasburg said. “I don’t think there’s a single guy in the clubhouse who’s going to start pointing fingers. Every single guy in here is responsible and we all want to win just as bad as any other team out there.”
The reigning NL East champions are currently in third place, a season-worst nine games behind the Atlanta Braves, and the offense is mainly to blame. The Nationals have scored only 13 runs during their 0-6 slide, which is part of a 2-11 stretch.
Already the owner of one previous no-hitter, Liriano (10-4) walked the first batter he faced, then retired 11 in a row before another walk. Five more outs followed, before rookie Anthony Rendon reached on what was ruled an infield single with two away in the sixth.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez — who earlier homered off Strasburg — dove to his left to stop the ball, but it popped out of his glove, and he couldn’t quite corral it. The next batter walked, but Liriano struck out cleanup hitter Jayson Werth looking.
“Everything was working the way I wanted tonight,” said Liriano, who wound up allowing two hits in 7 2-3 innings.
The Pirates tacked on three insurance runs in the ninth against relievers Drew Storen and Fernando Abad, thanks to Neil Walker’s RBI double and Michael McKenry’s two-run single. That became pivotal when Werth hit a two-run shot, his 15th homer, off Justin Wilson in the bottom half. Werth is seemingly the only Nationals batter capable of producing at the moment; he’s hit five homers in the past four games.
Wilson was replaced by Mark Melancon, who got the last three outs to earn his third save — ending with a double play on which second baseman Walker whiffed on his attempted tag of lead runner Wilson Ramos.
“Not even close. He never tagged me,” Ramos said.
He argued the call with umpire Laz Diaz, to no avail.
“Maybe,” Ramos said, “he (wanted) to go home.”
Nationals spokesman John Dever declined to check whether the umpiring crew would respond to reporters’ request for comment.
Washington center fielder Denard Span’s take: “It’s no secret that the ball definitely isn’t bouncing our way. That wasn’t the story of the game tonight, but anything could’ve happened if that play isn’t called there.”
The Nationals are a season-worst five games under .500 at 48-53. Already having all sorts of trouble at the plate — so much so that the club fired hitting coach Rick Eckstein this week — Washington’s starting lineup was missing All-Star left fielder Bryce Harper and shortstop Ian Desmond.
Harper was held out as a precaution after getting treatment on the left knee that landed him on the disabled list earlier this season, while Desmond is dealing with a blister on his left hand.
The last time Washington lost more than six consecutive games was nearly four years ago: They dropped eight in a row from Aug. 28 to Sept. 5, 2009, according to STATS LLC — shortly after signing Strasburg as the No. 1 overall pick in that year’s amateur draft.
This was Strasburg’s ninth career game with 10 or more strikeouts and first this season. His career high remains the 14 Ks from his major league debut on June 8, 2010, against Pittsburgh.
“I want to be the big dog in the rotation; that comes with the territory. The sixth inning isn’t cool anymore, for me,” Strasburg said. “I want to go seven, eight and hopefully nine sometime.”
Strasburg (5-8) did not walk anyone in eight innings Wednesday, giving up only one run and two hits, all in the second inning. That included the leadoff shot by Pedro Alvarez, who drove a 96 mph fastball over the wall in right-center for his 26th homer.
“A backspin 2-iron,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle called it. “I’ve seen a lot of home runs. I’ve seen a lot of hard-hit balls. But that one got my attention.”
Notes: Melancon is filling in for closer Jason Grilli, on the disabled list with a strained right forearm. …
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said LHP Ross Detwiler is expected to miss a month with a back injury. … On Thursday, the Nationals will start LHP Gio Gonzalez (7-3, 2.89) against Pirates RHP A.J. Burnett (4-7, 3.07).
Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter at http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich