(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

In need of a victory to halt three-game losing streak and to stay above .500, the Nationals will turn to Stephen Strasburg tonight in Pittsburgh. The 2009 first overall pick faces Gerrit Cole, the top choice in the 2011 draft, in the first meeting of starting pitchers selected 1-1 since David Price vs. Luke Hochever in 2012. It last happened in the National League when Paul Wilson faced Kris Benson in 2005.

Regardless of what kind of performance they receive from Strasburg, the Nationals need more from the sagging offense. They’ve scored five runs in three games. Of the hitters available to Manager Matt Williams tonight, only three enter with an OPS+ at league aveage or better: Anthony Rendon (100), Jayson Werth (115) and Scott Hairston (149).

When Williams inserted Greg Dobbs and Zach Walters into the lineup Friday, it meant four of the Nationals’ eight starting position players entered with batting averages under .200. Williams wanted to stack his lineup with lefties against Charlie Morton, a right-handed sinkerballer. Some kind of change was needed – the Nationals were batting .229/.298/.364 against right-handed starters this season, a symptom of missing lefty sluggers Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche. Those numbers aren’t any better today, and they’re facing Cole.

Everything the Nationals tried early on last night backfired, and sometimes what they tried smelled like desperation. Denard Span led off the third with a double down the right field line. Rendon may be slumping, but he remains one of the Nationals’ best available hitters. Still, with no outs in the third inning, he sacrifice bunted Span to third base.

“It’s on his own,” Williams said. “Everybody’s got the opportunity to do that. It depends on how he’s feeling at the plate, how he’s seeing the baseball, a number of things.”

What followed felt like some kind of cosmic punishment for giving up an out so early in the game. Jayson Werth drew the Nationals’ fourth walk off of Morton. Facing a pitcher unable to find the strike zone, Wilson Ramos hacked at Morton’s first-pitch sinker. He pounded it into the dirt, and the Pirates turned a 6-4-3 double play, pushing the Nationals streak with runners in scoring position to 0 for 20.

The Nationals will seek improvement with Danny Espinosa back in the lineup and Greg Dobbs back at first base. Around 2:30 p.m., Gio Gonzalez was out playing light toss with head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz, his first throwing session since an MRI detected inflammation in his left shoulder last weekend.

1. Denard Span, CF

2. Anthony Rendon, 3B

3. Jayson Werth, RF

4. Wilson Ramos, C

5. Ian Desmond, SS

6. Greg Dobbs, 1B

7. Danny Espinosa, 2B

8. Nate McLouth, LF

9. Stephen Strasburg, SP


1. Josh Harrison, RF

2. Neil Walker, 2B

3. Andrew McCutchen, CF

4. Ike Davis, 1B

5. Russell Martin, C

6. Pedro Alvarez, 3B

7. Starling Marte, LF

8. Clint Barmes, SS

9. Gerrit Cole, SP