Pittsburgh's Pedro Alvarez was responsible for two of the 13 strikeouts by Stephen Strasburg on Thursday. Image Credit: Charles LeClaire-US PRESSWIRE

Game 31: Nationals 4, Pirates 2

Barely avoiding an embarrassing and demoralizing sweep, the Washington Nationals rode the incomparable right arm of Stephen Strasburg and the red-hot bat of Adam LaRoche, the team’s clear MVP so far this season, to defeat the Pittsburgh Pirates, 4-2.

Henry Rodriguez completed a rare 4-out save (Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker reached after Jesus Flores dropped a third strike and made a poor throw to Adam LaRoche, who juggled the ball), his seventh in nine opportunities.

Early in the game, Strasburg’s brilliance overshadowed the Nationals’ continued hitting woes. The Washington ace fanned seven consecutive Pirates, beginning with All-Star Andrew McCutchen to end the first and ending with opposing pitcher Kevin Correia to close out the third.

While Strasburg dominated, Washington’s hitters bumbled.  The lowlight came in the top of the fourth when LaRoche walked, Bryce Harper singled, reaching base for the 10 game of his 11 as a National, and Danny Espinosa grounded into an inning ending double play. The Nats’ struggling second baseman talked his way into the starting line-up in a pre-game meeting with Davey Johnson. Espinosa went 1-4 to raise his batting average to .191, but was also caught stealing after his lone hit.

In the bottom of the fourth, the Pirates pecked away at Strasburg, getting three of their five hits for the evening. Harper’s ill-advised throw on McCutchen’s RBI single skipped past Flores for an error. McCutchen, hitting above .400 against the Nationals in his career, scored on Walker’s single.

Just when Pittsburgh’s two-run lead seemed insurmountable, the Nationals quiet bats awoke, led by an unlikely source. Roger Bernadina, who has struggled all season, blasted a 3-1 pitch from Correia into the Pirates bullpen, about 420 feet away.

Ryan Zimmerman walked and LaRoche blasted a ball in nearly the same place Bernadina hit his, for his 6th home run of the season and a 3-2 lead. LaRoche is now hitting .327 with 21 RBI, by far the best hitting performance on the team.

In the 9th, Rick Ankiel homered to right field against Pittsburgh reliever Chris Resop. The insurance run seemed to help closer Rodriguez relax, as he overcame the strange error to close out Washington’s 19th win, one the team badly needed.

Champs of the Game: Strasburg, who overcame a strange bit of wildness, walking three consecutive batters in the sixth inning. He finished his dominant six inning outing by striking out Garrett Jones with the bases loaded, his 13th of the game. An ace’s role is to stop losing streaks. Strasburg obliged, with his third win of the season against no losses.

LaRoche continues to carry the weak Nationals offense on his back. With Jayson Werth out, his role becomes even more important.

For the Pirates, McCutchen continued to hurt the Nats with his hitting and speed

Chump of the Game: Ian Desmond and Jesus Flores combined to go 0-9, but neither struck out. In fact, the Nationals took Johnson’s charge to make better contact to heart, fanning only three times.

For the Pirates, Walker got picked off trying to advance to second on his RBI single, allowing Strasburg to escape the 4th inning without throwing another pitch.

Unsung Heroes: Nationals’ relievers Ryan Mattheus, Tyler Clippard, and Rodriguez faced 10 batters and retired 9 to safeguard Strasburg’s win.

Next Game: Friday, May 11, at Cincinnati. Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 1.72) faces Mike Leake (0-4, 5.97).

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Tags: Adam LaRoche Pittsburgh Pirates Stephen Strasburg Washington Nationals

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