It took a rare team meeting for the Washington Nationals to get what lately has been a rare victory when Stephen Strasburg starts.
Strasburg struck out eight in seven innings and the Nationals won one of his outings for the first time since Opening Day by beating the Pittsburgh Pirates 5-4 Saturday.
”I was absolutely happy about getting through the seventh inning,” Strasburg said. ”The biggest thing is to give your team a chance to win the ballgame. Not every game are you going to be lights out and hitting every spot.”
Strasburg remained winless since his first start, though. He allowed four runs and five hits — all of Pittsburgh’s offense coming on two-run homers by Starling Marte and Clint Barmes.
Strasburg is 1-4 with a 3.45 ERA in seven starts this season.
”I thought (Strasburg) threw really well,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. ”He made one good pitch after another. He only made two bad pitches all day, a couple over the heart of the plate that they hit out of the park. But he held us in the game and did a good job.”
Tyler Moore hit a go-ahead sacrifice fly in the top of the ninth inning off Tony Watson (1-1) to score Ryan Zimmerman, who was on third after an unlikely double steal.
Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche had combined for 36 steals in 2,219 games and none this season when they took off and got good enough jumps that Pirates catcher Russell Martin didn’t even bother throwing.
”We know who has what times (to the plate), what guys are slow and what guys are fast and what guys give a guy like me an actual chance to steal a base,” said Zimmerman, whose steal of third was the first of his career.
”When you’re looking at a pitcher that takes 1.8-2.0 seconds to get the ball to the plate, I should be able to steal off him.”
Johnson said the Nationals were being more aggressive on the bases in an attempt to jump-start a lethargic offense that had scored three or fewer runs 14 times in its most recent 20 games.
Before the game, Johnson called a team meeting with the same goal in mind.
His primary message: Relax. For the first time since the franchise moved from Montreal eight years ago, the Nationals entered the season with extremely high expectations. The NL East champions began the game with 239 strikeouts by their batters, second-most in the NL, and whiffed 14 times during Friday’s series-opening loss.
In an effort to loosen the team up, the 70-year-old Johnson even took batting practice — getting about 40 hacks — for what he said was the first time in 25 years.
The results were mixed most of the afternoon: The Nationals scored more than three runs for the first time in seven games, but had only six hits.
Pirates starter Jeff Locke allowed three of those during his five-plus innings, allowing four runs, three earned, with three walks and three strikeouts.
”Well, we got a few more guys on base,” Johnson said. ”We didn’t get many in – but it’s a start.”
Ian Desmond’s sacrifice fly in the third snapped a 15-plus scoreless inning streak by Locke. Adam LaRoche drove in Zimmerman with a fly to right an inning later after Zimmerman led off the inning with a triple.
”Everything felt pretty good today,” Locke said. ”I just need to be a little bit more efficient early in the count.”
A day after striking out four times upon being activated from the disabled list, Zimmerman scored three runs. Wilson Ramos’ RBI single in the sixth tied the game at 4 after Pittsburgh built a two-run lead.
Tyler Clippard (2-1) pitched a scoreless eighth and Rafael Soriano got his 10th save with an unconventional 1-2-3 ninth. Martin was thrown out at second trying to extend a leadoff single, then Soriano got Pedro Alvarez to pop out and Jordy Mercer to strike out to end the game.
Marte’s homer was his fourth of the season. Barmes, who scored two runs and doubled his RBI total on his first home run of the season, improved his season average from .173 to .192.
”It’s definitely always nice to help out on the offensive side of things,” Barmes said. ”Hit a ball hard and finally got something out of it.”
Washington OF Denard Span was not in the lineup a day after fouling a ball off his right foot. The Nationals are without OF Jayson Werth (right hamstring) for the series. … Pittsburgh had a four-game home winning streak snapped. … All of the Pirates’ seven runs in the series have come by way of home run. … Pittsburgh CF Andrew McCutchen extended his hitting streak against the Nationals to 17 games. … A pair of left-handers start in the series finale Sunday. The last time Pittsburgh’s Wandy Rodriguez (2-1, 3.91) faced Washington’s Gio Gonzalez (2-2, 3.54), it was a 1-0 pitcher’s duel won by Gonzalez on April 17, 2012.