PITTSBURGH — The Washington Nationals offense, that league-leading, pitcher-pestering lineup loaded with experience, found a worthy nemesis Wednesday night. Pirates right-hander Gerrit Cole simply shut them down in a 6-1 loss at PNC Park.
“That was one of the best performances we’d seen against us,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “Plus, it didn’t help that we didn’t play well.”
Games like this will happen — one of those tip-your-cap evenings on which the other guy was better. Cole sparkled, allowing one weak hit through the first six innings. The Nationals are 25-14, leading the National League East by eight games. They can afford a clunker now and then. This clunker began as one of the best pitching duels they’ve participated in all season.
About a half-decade ago, when Cole and Jacob Turner were highly touted prospects coming out of high school, an eventual matchup between the two in the majors seemed a good bet.
The Yankees drafted Cole in the first round of the 2008 draft, though he chose to go to UCLA instead. The Pirates eventually drafted the 6-foot-4 right-hander with the mid-90s fastball in the first round of the 2011 draft. He was in the majors two years later and an all-star two seasons after that.
The Tigers selected Turner, a 6-5 right-hander with a mid-90s fastball, in the first round of the 2009 draft. Though considered less of a sure thing than Cole, Turner — also a Scott Boras client — seemed to have the build and stuff to make it. Like Cole, Turner was in the majors two years after his draft year. But he struggled to stick.
Though their paths diverged in the intervening years, the instant success and late bloomer were indistinguishable from one another for the first five innings Wednesday night. Turner matched Cole zero for zero, locking the Pirates’ presumptive ace in an unexpected pitchers’ duel — unexpected because the Nationals only announced Turner as their starter late Tuesday night, the best option for the in flux fifth spot in their rotation.
Among the byproducts of the Nationals’ early season battle for bullpen stability is an unspoken competition for several key spots, high-leverage innings and even a position in the rotation among them. Joe Ross had the first crack at the fifth starter spot but couldn’t hold it.
Wednesday, Turner got his second chance at the job. Though he said he did not attack the strike zone as much as he would like, he escaped trouble in the first, second and third. Of the 19 outs Turner recorded, groundballs accounted for 12 of them, which is exactly what the Nationals want to see from a man with a hard, sinking fastball.
Meanwhile, Cole carved his way through the Nationals’ lineup, which lacked Matt Wieters (day off) and had Brian Goodwin in center field instead of Michael A. Taylor, who is hitting .328 since taking over center field full-time after Adam Eaton’s injury. The only hit the most prolific offense in baseball managed through six innings was a blooper to center by Jose Lobaton.
“He was throwing strike one, keeping the ball down, mixing up his breaking ball and fastball and change-up,” Baker said. “He had everything working tonight. It was in the fifth or sixth inning before we knew what kind of happened.”
So the game was scoreless heading to the sixth when Turner finally blinked. He walked the leadoff man, got an out, then hit David Freese with an 0-2 fastball up and in. When he fell behind Josh Bell 3-1, Bell punished him with a home run to right, one hit so high and deep that right fielder Bryce Harper just turned, took a step or two, and ended the chase there.
“Obviously Bell hit the home run, everybody’s going to look at that. But how those guys got on base, stuff like that just can’t happen,” Turner said. “I’ve got to be better in that situation. That’s really it.”
After he walked the next man, Baker marched out to get Turner after four hits and 89 pitches, more than he had thrown in an outing all season — enough to state a strong case for more chances as the Nationals’ fifth starter, but not enough to leave with a lead. Turner said he wasn’t tired, though he threw 30 pitches over two outings this weekend and started on just two full days of rest.
The Nationals finally got to Cole in the seventh, when Daniel Murphy hit a groundball up the middle and Goodwin doubled off the wall in right field. Goodwin eventually was picked off second to end the inning — part of that sloppy play to which Baker referred — but that hit ensured the Nationals would not be shut out. They have not been shut out this season.
Felipe Rivero, who the Nationals sent to Pittsburgh in the Mark Melancon trade last summer, shut them down in order in the eighth. The Nationals’ bullpen — namely Oliver Perez and Matt Albers — allowed the Pirates to build their lead to five by the eighth. Two errors by shortstop Trea Turner, who had made one all season entering Wednesday, did not help.
But ultimately, it was not the fault of Nationals relievers or Turner that the Nationals fell Wednesday. There was credit due Cole, who cooled the Nationals offense, at least for a night. They had been held to one run once this season. Holding the Nationals down is not easy.