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Musgrove's career-high 9 K's can't slow Nats

Righty returns from DL with 96 pitches in 5 innings of 2-run ball
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- The Nationals' lineup did not let Joe Musgrove off easy on Tuesday night, making this critical week that much harder for the Pirates.

Musgrove racked up a career-high nine strikeouts in his return to Pittsburgh's rotation following a brief stint on the disabled list, but Washington ran up his pitch count and forced him out of the game after five innings. Then the Nationals capitalized on Steven Brault's lack of command, built up a big lead and walked out of PNC Park with a 5-1 victory.

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PITTSBURGH -- The Nationals' lineup did not let Joe Musgrove off easy on Tuesday night, making this critical week that much harder for the Pirates.

Musgrove racked up a career-high nine strikeouts in his return to Pittsburgh's rotation following a brief stint on the disabled list, but Washington ran up his pitch count and forced him out of the game after five innings. Then the Nationals capitalized on Steven Brault's lack of command, built up a big lead and walked out of PNC Park with a 5-1 victory.

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"It's just a frustrating night, to feel as good as I felt and have to battle and work that hard early in the game and get my pitch count that high," Musgrove said. "It really limited my ability to go deeper into the game."

The Pirates have split the first two games of a week where, as general manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday, "4-4 doesn't do us much good." The loss dropped the Bucs back to seven games below .500 as they've lost 32 of their last 48. They face the Nationals on Wednesday afternoon before hosting the Brewers for five games in four days heading into the All-Star break, a stretch that could cement their status as Trade Deadline sellers.

The Nationals fouled off 30 of Musgrove's 96 pitches on the night. After a 50-minute weather delay to start the game, the Nationals made him battle through a 27-pitch first inning in which he hit leadoff man Adam Eaton, gave up a single to Juan Soto, walked Matt Adams to load the bases and struck out the other three hitters he faced.

Video: WSH@PIT: Musgrove K's Turner, strands bases loaded

Musgrove kept a boom-or-bust lineup off the board until the fifth. He leaned on his cutter and slider against right-handers and relied on his fastball-changeup combination to keep lefties off-balance through a handful of long innings.

"That's not the way you draw it up, but it just goes to show you, when this guy gets on the mound, the competitive nature takes over," manager Clint Hurdle said.

Musgrove's one mistake came in the fifth. With two outs, Soto reached on an infield single despite a sharp diving stop by Colin Moran. Anthony Rendon then launched a first-pitch cutter deep to left-center field, giving the Nats a 2-0 lead.

"I just left it right over the middle of the plate," Musgrove said. "It was a poor pitch."

With Musgrove out, the Pirates turned to Brault in the sixth. The lefty reliever allowed three runs on three hits and three walks while recording only one out. The hits were of less concern than the walks, as Brault has issued at least one free pass in all but one of his 13 appearances since the end of May.

"Right now, the way the command is going, it's not where it needs to be," Brault said.

Video: WSH@PIT: Musgrove, Hurdle talk 5-1 loss to Nationals

After scoring six runs in the series opener, the Pirates' bats fell silent on Tuesday as they managed only seven singles, including four infield hits. They brought the tying run to the plate in the ninth, but pinch-hitter Francisco Cervelli struck out to leave the bases loaded.

While Musgrove grinded through five innings, Nationals right-hander Jeremy Hellickson breezed through five on 67 pitches while allowing only two hits and a walk.

"It's a really good changeup, and he spots his fastball," Hurdle said of Hellickson. "It's why he's still pitching in the big leagues, why he gets effective outings, why he does good things. When he's on, he's a sharpshooter."

MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Free passes: The Pirates were looking for length from Brault, as closer Felipe Vazquez and right-hander Edgar Santana were unavailable. They prefer to use only one of their multiple-inning relievers per game, so they hoped to stay away from Tyler Glasnow. Instead, Brault's performance stretched their relief corps thin.

Brault struck out Adams, the first batter he faced in the sixth, then allowed six straight hitters to reach safely. He walked Trea Turner, gave up singles to Daniel Murphy and Spencer Kieboom, then walked Mark Reynolds to bring home a run. Eaton knocked an RBI single to left, then Brault issued a second bases-loaded walk to Soto.

Video: WSH@PIT: Soto plates Kieboom on a bases-loaded walk

"It's just something that needs to be fixed now. That's what I'm going to be working on," Brault said. "When it comes to command, it's small adjustments that have to be made. It's not a big mechanical thing. It's not a big mental thing. It just needs to be looked at, analyzed and fixed. So that's what we're going to do tomorrow."

Brault, who leads the Pirates pitching staff with 40 walks in 62 1/3 innings this season, threw only 11 of his 27 pitches for strikes. Glasnow kept things in check, however, inducing an inning-ending double play.

Video: WSH@PIT: Glasnow induces key 4-6-3 double play in 6th

HE SAID IT
"I faced him in Spring Training last year with Houston and ended up walking him twice. I grew up playing with [Bryce] Harper, so it was a little bit of a friendly matchup. But walking him twice, that wasn't something I was going to do tonight. I wanted to make him earn his way on base. I just wanted to stuff him and attack him, and I did that."-- Musgrove, on striking out Harper three times

UP NEXT
Right-hander Trevor Williams will try to get back on track after allowing 12 runs in 13 innings over his last three starts when he faces the Nationals on Wednesday at PNC Park. Lefty Gio Gonzalez will start for Washington. First pitch is scheduled for 12:35 p.m. ET, and the game will be broadcast exclusively on Facebook Watch.

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Joe Musgrove