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Despite homers, rocky start again sinks Nats

Soto, Harper go deep, but Rodriguez allows 6 runs
MLB.com @JamalCollier

PITTSBURGH -- After their starting pitching carried them for much of the first two months of the season, the Nationals' rotation has been one of the team's biggest hindrances during the past month. A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness has exposed some weaknesses in what was once an unquestioned strength.

If the Nats are going to climb back into the playoff hunt in the National League East, they are going to need more consistent outings than what they received from Jefry Rodriguez in Monday's 6-3 loss to the Pirates. Although he settled into the game to last five innings, Rodriguez, who was making his third career start, gave up six runs in the first two frames to put the Nationals at a deficit before they had a chance to get much started.

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PITTSBURGH -- After their starting pitching carried them for much of the first two months of the season, the Nationals' rotation has been one of the team's biggest hindrances during the past month. A combination of injuries and ineffectiveness has exposed some weaknesses in what was once an unquestioned strength.

If the Nats are going to climb back into the playoff hunt in the National League East, they are going to need more consistent outings than what they received from Jefry Rodriguez in Monday's 6-3 loss to the Pirates. Although he settled into the game to last five innings, Rodriguez, who was making his third career start, gave up six runs in the first two frames to put the Nationals at a deficit before they had a chance to get much started.

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Juan Soto and Bryce Harper added solo home runs, but the Nats dropped the opener of this seven-game road trip before the All-Star break. This road trip could serve as a chance for Washington to get on a roll before the break, but after Monday's loss they fell back to .500, at 45-45.

• Harper's 22nd homer a moonshot to center

Video: WSH@PIT: Harper crushes a 443-foot homer to center

"I think, over the course of a season, things turn around," manager Dave Martinez said. "Our starting pitchers will get back in form and they'll pitch six, seven innings, and our bullpen will get the rest that they need. But right now we've got to keep fighting, keep scratching and clawing."

Video: WSH@PIT: Soto drills a line-drive solo homer to right

Frustrations boiled over with two outs and nobody on in the sixth inning, when Adam Eaton took exception to a strike call from home-plate umpire Gabe Morales and stepped out of the batter's box. Pirates catcher Francisco Cervelli took issue with Eaton and stood up to confront him. As the two exchanged words, both benches and bullpens cleared, although there was no physical altercation of any kind.

"They had a few words," Martinez said. "All in the heat of the game."

Video: WSH@PIT: Benches clear after Eaton, Cervelli argue

More troubling are the issues with Washington's rotation. With a pressing need for bullpen help, the team seems likely to option Rodriguez to the Minors after this start and promote a reliever to fill his roster spot until they need another starter in five days.

The Nationals are getting a boost to their starting rotation soon with Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) set to begin a Minor League rehab assignment Tuesday at Class A Advanced Potomac. He is on track to be activated from the DL after the All-Star break. But perhaps the team must consider whether his return will be enough, or with the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaching, if they could shop for a potential upgrade.

Collectively, Nats starting pitchers finished tied for the highest ERA in the National League in June, even with Max Scherzer making a case for the Cy Young Award. Excluding Scherzer, the rest of their rotation entered Monday with a 7.80 ERA since Strasburg landed on the DL on June 10.

"For right now, getting Stras back is going to help us a lot," Martinez said. "And then the other guys, I think Gio's going to be fine. We got to figure out Tanner [Roark], because Tanner's good and I know he's good. I've got all the confidence in the world in him. We've got to get those guys back in form."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
The Nationals do not have a hotter hitter in their lineup than Mark Reynolds, who was named the NL Player of the Week on Monday. So, he was the perfect player to come to the plate as the tying run in the ninth inning against Pirates left-hander Felipe Vazquez, who was pitching for the third day in a row. Reynolds hit the ball hard, but directly to the shortstop for a game-ending double play.

Video: WSH@PIT: Vazquez induces a double play to record save

"We can't wait for the ninth to get two guys on," Eaton said. "We've got to continue to fight every single at-bat and not give away innings. That's the picture of a good team: Not giving up outs. And there's not an inning that goes by that's a six-pitch inning or seven-pitch inning, where it was just aggressive at-bats. We're all guilty of it. But we've got to fight every single pitch and not give in to any inning."

HE SAID IT
"I remember in April and May, they were probably the best starting rotation on the planet. That's why baseball is 162 games. It's tough to maintain. I think they've gone through some struggles and seen them kind of come out on the other side, so it will be exciting to hopefully get to where they were in April and May. But anytime you can run out Max, Gio [Gonzalez] and when you get Stras healthy, those are a pretty good three, and everything kind of feeds off of them." -- Matt Wieters, on the Nats' rotation

"The biggest difference I notice is just a small mistake here, they make you pay for it. In Double-A, sometimes you can get away with it. Locating a pitch, you can stay out of it. But here, they let you know." -- Rodriguez, on what he has learned pitching in the Majors

UP NEXT
The Nationals could use a lengthy start from Jeremy Hellickson on Tuesday night at PNC Park to help spare a bullpen that has been taxed trying to cover for short stints from their starting pitchers. Hellickson battled an illness during his last outing, lasting just four innings and allowing nine runs in the process. He is hoping for better luck against the Pirates and right-hander Joe Musgrove when the middle game of this series begins at 7:05 p.m. ET.

Jamal Collier has covered the Nationals for MLB.com since 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

Washington Nationals, Bryce Harper, Jefry Rodriguez, Juan Soto