WASHINGTON -- In the fourth inning, Charlie Morton watched while Jeanmar Gomez went to work on the Nationals Park mound. That never bodes well for a starter's performance, and Morton's outing Friday night led to an evening of playing from behind.
The Pirates lost their series opener against the Washington Nationals, 5-4, as Morton pitched out of the stretch all night and Tanner Roark allowed the lineup but a brief window to score. The Pirates lost their third game in a row.
By the time Jayson Nix pinch-hit for Morton in the top of the fourth, Morton had allowed five runs, seven hits and three walks in three innings. The bullpen pitched five scoreless innings, including a perfect eighth with two strikeouts in John Axford's Pirates debut.
After scoring three runs in the third inning, the Pirates couldn't do much until the ninth. Pedro Alvarez drove in a run, his second RBI hit of the game, but Rafael Soriano recorded the save.
Opponents have scored at least four earned runs in four of his past five outings, during which time he has a 4.85 ERA and 34 hits in 26 innings.
Francisco Liriano recently discovered his 2013 form and has anchored the rotation during the past month. Edinson Volquez has pitched well, as has Vance Worley with the exception of his most recent start. The trio's performance largely accounts for the rotation's 3.49 ERA in the past 30 days, which before Friday's games ranked sixth in the National League.
Morton and Jeff Locke, Saturday's starter, began to struggle after the All-Star break. The rotation should receive a boost from Gerrit Cole, who pitched seven scoreless innings in a rehab start with Class AAA Indianapolis Friday night and will almost certainly return from the disabled list next week.
Morton, who signed a three-year, $21 million extension this winter, is not in danger of leaving the rotation when Cole returns. Locke, who has a minor league option, is the most likely candidate; the Pirates will probably not risk losing Worley, who is out of options, two weeks before rosters expand to 40 players.
Nationals starter Tanner Roark carried a 2.86 ERA, which placed him ninth among National League starters, into Friday's start. He held his opponents to one run in five of his past six outings and completed seven innings in six of his past seven. He lacked the efficiency to pitch that deep Friday, needing 107 pitches to complete 52/3 innings, but exited the game with a lead.
The first six Nationals batters of the game found their way on base against Morton. Denard Span singled and Asdrubal Cabrera walked on four pitches after Span stole second. Russell Martin slowed the onslaught momentarily by throwing out Span trying to steal third, but Anthony Rendon promptly singled.
Adam LaRoche's hit scored a run. Ian Desmond walked, again on four pitches. Brice Harper ended a nine-pitch at-bat by lining a single just out of reach of a leaping Neil Walker to score two runs.
Wilson Ramos grounded into a double play, but the Nationals had a 3-0 lead and forced Morton to throw 31 pitches in the first inning. He needed only 11 to retire the side in order in the second, including two strikeouts, but the Nationals' offense resumed its attack in the third.
They used the same formula. This time, the first four batters reached base. Cabrera singled and Rendon walked before LaRoche's hit scored a run. Ian Desmond reached on a fielder's choice, which eliminated the lead runner, and Harper struck out. But Wilson Ramos bounced the first pitch he saw up the middle, giving the Nationals a 5-0 lead.
Starling Marte cut into the lead in the fourth. After Neil Walker doubled in his first game back after back spasms forced him to the bench, Starling Marte crushed a 1-0 slider into the seats in left field. His sixth home run, and first since June 13, brought the Pirates within three.
Travis Snider walked. Pedro Alvarez doubled to the warning track and Snider came all the way around to score. The relay would have nailed him at the plate, but Ramos dropped the ball, and the Pirates trailed, 5-3.
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