Adam LaRoche showed signs of shaking off his April blues, going 2-for-3 on Friday, but the Nats fell to Pittsburgh 3-1 in the series opener. (Image: Daniel Shirey, USA Today)

It's the Pitts: Pirates Shut Down Nats in Series Opener

This wasn’t the return Ryan Zimmerman was hoping for.

After a stint on the disabled list with a hamstring issue, Zimmerman returned to the cleanup spot in the Washington Nationals lineup Friday night, but A.J. Burnett and the Pittsburgh Pirates ruined the party, shutting down the Nationals offense in a 3-1 Pirates victory at PNC Park.

Zimmerman, who played just one rehab game to get back into game shape, could be excused for perhaps thinking one or two more A-ball outings might have been beneficial. The third baseman, who has now made a DL trip in each of the past three Aprils, never got comfortable against Burnett and the Pirates, striking out in all four plate appearances on a night the Nationals fanned 14 times.

Burnett (3-2) racked up nine of the punchouts, moving to the head of the class in the National League with 57 Ks. The veteran scattered five hits and allowed Washington’s only run before turning it over to the bullpen, where Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli sent the Nationals home on the wrong side of the scoreboard and dropped the club back down to the .500 mark at 15-15 on the season.

Ross Detwiler, as has become the norm this season, wasn’t awful for Washington, but picked the wrong day to try and match up with Burnett. Unfortunately for Detwiler (1-3), the Pirates were able to convert the two mistake pitched the left-hander made into long balls, accounting for all of Pittsburgh’s scoring.

The first probably shouldn’t have come as any surprise to anyone who has seen a Pirates-Nationals game over the past couple of years. With two outs in the first inning, Pirates centerfielder Andrew McCutchen blasted a 2-1 pitch over the wall in left, giving Pittsburgh and 1-0 lead and extending his mastery of Washington pitching. For his career, McCutchen has blistered the Nationals for a .455 batting average (41-for-90) with 11 home runs and 22 RBIs. You might as well nickname him “Ted Lerner,” since he owns the Nationals.

After Danny Espinosa singled in the fourth inning to plate Adam LaRoche and tie the game — just Espinosa’s second hit in his last 23 at-bats — Detwiler’s second mistake, in the bottom of the fifth inning, turned out to be the most costly. With Starling Marte on second base, and only because LaRoche couldn’t get the ball out of his glove when the Nats had Marte picked off and trying to advance, Detwiler turned and watched as Pirates rookie Jordy Mercer, just recalled to the big leagues on Friday, blasted a two-run homer to left to break the tie and give Pittsburgh a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.

“Just two pitches,” Detwiler said to Mark Zuckerman of CSN. “It was kind of weird, they were the same exact pitch. I tried to throw a fastball away, I cut it a little bit, it goes right over the middle of the plate and they’re paid to hit them.”

The Nats barely threatened after that, with any minor uprising quelled quickly by the Pirates pitchers. An error and a single in the top of the eighth inning saw Nationals on first and third, but Melancon punched out Bryce Harper to end the inning, and Grilli struck out the side in the bottom of the ninth to pick up his 12th save of the season.

Washington, without Jayson Werth for the series as he rests his sore hamstring, will try to right the ship Saturday afternoon at 4:05 PM, with Stephen Strasburg (1-4, 3.13 ERA) looking to bounce back from forearm tightness in his last start against Pittsburgh left-hander Jeff Locke (3-1, 2.83).

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