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Nationals slip to .500 as offence falters again in 4-3 loss to Pirates

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PITTSBURGH, Pa. - The Washington Nationals threw out a lineup Friday night that didn't include injured stars Ryan Zimmerman or Bryce Harper but did include four players hitting .192 or lower.

Manager Matt Williams isn't complaining. And after a 4-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates dropped the NL East favourites back to .500 at 24-24, he wasn't exactly panicking either.

"I think you can point to a lot of things that have contribute to our record and it doesn't deter us by any stretch from getting ready to play tomorrow and getting to play the rest of our games," Williams said. "I'm hopeful and I'm enthusiastic about what's to come."

The future surely beats the present after the Nationals dropped their third straight.

Jordan Zimmerman (3-2) laboured through six innings to lose for the first time in over a month. Denard Span had two of Washington's eight hits. The Nationals left 11 men on base and went 1 for 9 with runners in scoring position.

Washington had the tying run on first in the ninth with two outs off Pirates closer Jason Grilli, but Ian Desmond's drive to the wall in right field was snagged by a leaping Josh Harrison to end it.

"I had it the whole time," the 5-foot-8 Harrison said with a smile.

Something the Nationals don't at the moment. Washington had at least one baserunner in every inning but the offence struggled to come up a clutch hit.

"We had opportunities," Williams said. "We had the right matchups, right against left, left against right and they just scored one more run than we did."

Charlie Morton (1-6) allowed one run on five hits in 5 2-3 workmanlike innings for his first victory since last September. Pedro Alvarez hit his ninth home run of the season after being dropped from fourth to sixth in the lineup. Ike Davis, who replaced Alvarez as the cleanup hitter, went 2 for 4 with two runs scored.

Grilli, activated from the disabled list earlier in the day, picked up his first save since April 14. The Pirates have won three straight and four of five.

Morton has pitched well at times this season and began the night with the lowest ERA among Pittsburgh starters (3.45) but had not been rewarded with a victory. He wasn't dominant while walking four batters and hitting another but managed to keep Washington's struggling offence in check and the bullpen made it stand up.

The Pirates weren't quite as busy on the basepaths as Washington but managed to be a little more efficient getting runners home. Manager Clint Hurdle tinkered with the batting order hoping to get a little more production out of the meat of the lineup and it paid immediate dividends.

Hurdle moved Davis — hitting .328 this month — from fifth to fourth and dropped Alvarez to sixth after a prolonged slump.

Davis singled leading off the second and fourth and came home both times, scoring on a fielder's choice by Starling Marte in the second and trotting home after Alvarez sent a Zimmerman fastball into the bushes in centre field for his first homer since May 5 to make it 4-0.

"I just left it up and in the middle of the plate and he hit it," Zimmerman said. "It comes down to one pitch, you pitch so well then you hang one pitch and it makes the difference. It's frustrating."

The Nationals crept back in it slowly. Jayson Werth scored on a sacrifice fly by Greg Dobbs in the sixth. Washington drew within one in the eighth on a sacrifice fly by pinch hitter Scott Hairston and a wild pitch by Pittsburgh reliever Bryan Morris.

Grilli, facing live batters for the first time since April 20, worked around a leadoff walk to Anthony Rendon to give the Pirates their major league-leading 13th one-run victory.

NOTES: Nationals 1B Adam LaRoche went 1 for 3 with a walk in a rehab start for Double-A Altoona on Friday night, clearing the way for him to return from a strained right quadriceps on Sunday. ... The victory was Hurdle's 800th as a major league manager. He is the sixth active manager to reach 800 victories.. ... The series continues on Saturday when former No. 1 overall picks Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole meet for the first time. Strasburg, the top pick in the 2009 amateur draft is 3-3 with a 3.38 ERA this season. Cole, the top pick in the 2011 draft, is 4-3 with a 3.84 ERA.

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