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First-place Nats hit quarter mark with loss that underscores glaring issues

Bryce Harper tosses his bat after striking out for the final out in the seventh inning during Thursday’s loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh. (Justin Berl/Getty Images)

The 40th game of the Washington Nationals' season, the unofficial quarter mark, was an unflattering representation of their season to date, the second of two of the sloppiest games of their season, an uninspired 10-4 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Tanner Roark wrestled himself through five innings, a common theme for him through his first nine starts. The relief corps found its daily dose of calamity, another common theme. The Nationals made two errors, their second multi-error game in a row.

“It was a bad couple days. We didn’t play very well,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “We made a lot of mistakes. Seems like we weren’t there sometimes. We just got to up the intensity and up our concentration.”

The Nationals fell to 25-15, the only team over .500 in the National League East. But they are flawed, substantially and glaringly, so much so that the first quarter of the season feels built on a bed of sand, the foundation perilously uncertain — though not, by any means, beyond reinforcement.

Roark, for example, has a resume that suggests he should find his way. His recent trouble has been with pitch count, something that was not a problem last season as he made 33 starts and pitched at least seven innings in 18 of them. This season, he had lasted seven innings once.

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After two innings Thursday, Roark had thrown 37 pitches and allowed two runs. He threw 35 pitches in the third inning alone, and walked three batters, all on full counts.

“I know the stuff’s there. It’s all about limiting — trying to get four pitches or less to every hitter. Maybe three pitches or less,” Roark said. “Just attack, attack, attack. Keep them uncomfortable. That’s my game.”

Roark ended up helping his cause in the top of the fourth, when he reached on an error with two outs and in so doing allowed two runs to score. Daniel Murphy had homered in the second. Adam Lind doubled home a run. But Thursday was a rare instance thus far in the season when the prolific offense could not pick up the pitching staff.

Baker pulled Roark with no one out in the sixth after he had thrown 114 pitches. He is averaging 19 pitches per inning, or more than six per out — more than a pitch more per out than he averaged last season. He allowed seven runs on eight hits and walked four, tying a career high.

Baker said he isn’t worried about Roark’s health, but does hope a between-starts bullpen session will help him regain movement on his two-seam fastball — that swing-back stalwart on which the righty relies, which was not swinging back Thursday.

Catcher Matt Wieters said he thought Roark just wasn’t making competitive pitches on two-strike counts, which allowed hitters to lay off, then work deeper into the at-bat. He also thought the two-seamer returned late, “which will be big.”

“Hopefully he can take that into his bullpen,” Wieters said. “and take that into his next start.”

High pitch counts like that do not stress only Roark. They tax the Nationals’ bullpen, which has been, to be kind, problematic. Blake Treinen relieved Roark in the sixth, his third straight day of work. He allowed a double that scored two runs, then a sacrifice fly, then another double. Enny Romero allowed two runs in the seventh, though only one of them was earned.

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By then, the game was largely out of reach, though when the Nationals put the first two men in scoring position to begin the seventh, they could not score either of them. The Nationals left six runners on base.

More damaging, however, was the fact that the Nationals allowed a run to score in all but two of the first seven innings. They could not stay close because their pitching staff could not close the door, unaided by the kind of mental and physical defensive mistakes this team did not make often early this season, and by a rough start from a man as reliable as anyone in baseball last season.

“I’m just going to keep chucking. That’s all you can do,” Roark said. “Keep working hard and keep my confidence level up.”

The Nationals must do the same. Fortunately for them, the rest of their division competition has far more flaws than they do. After two tough games in Pittsburgh, the Nationals cannot hide the fact that they have problems, some big, some small, some fleeting, some lingering. But with three-quarters of their season remaining, they have plenty of time to solve them.