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Williams, 'pen blank Nats for 10th shutout

Young arms come up big as Pittsburgh takes two of three
MLB.com @adamdberry

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates placed a big bet on their young arms this year, banking on an inexperienced pitching staff offering potential but also volatility. While the Bucs have seen both on display this season, it's been more of the latter lately. They saw their upside shine through on Wednesday afternoon at PNC Park.

Trevor Williams snapped out of a rough stretch to work five scoreless innings, and four Pittsburgh relievers kept Washington off the board in the Pirates' 2-0 win over the Nationals. The Bucs have won three of their last five series despite going 7-8 during that stretch.

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PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates placed a big bet on their young arms this year, banking on an inexperienced pitching staff offering potential but also volatility. While the Bucs have seen both on display this season, it's been more of the latter lately. They saw their upside shine through on Wednesday afternoon at PNC Park.

Trevor Williams snapped out of a rough stretch to work five scoreless innings, and four Pittsburgh relievers kept Washington off the board in the Pirates' 2-0 win over the Nationals. The Bucs have won three of their last five series despite going 7-8 during that stretch.

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It was the Bucs' 10th shutout of the season, tied with the Giants for second-most in the Majors. Only the Cubs (11) have put together more shutouts, yet the Pirates entered Wednesday with a 4.46 ERA that ranked 12th in the National League.

Video: WSH@PIT: Vazquez caps bullpen's 4 scoreless frames

"It's going to come," Williams said. "Experience is the best developer. We're going to get punched in the mouth, and we're going to have bad starts and bad relief outings. Over time, we should get better and we will get better."

In a way, Williams has represented the unpredictable nature of Pittsburgh's pitching staff. Nine starts into the season, he was 5-2 with a 2.72 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. Over his last nine outings, he went 1-5 with a 7.02 ERA and 1.39 WHIP. On Wednesday, he grinded through a 28-pitch first inning then efficiently worked through the next four without allowing a run.

Video: WSH@PIT: Hurdle, Williams talk 2-0 win over Nationals

"I understand there's going to be bad starts along the way, but it's the things in between the starts -- that aren't on the field, that aren't in front of cameras -- that are getting better throughout the process," Williams said. "It was good today to get some zeros, and it was good for us to get the win."

Williams gave up four hits, walked three and only struck out three. But he made big pitches when he needed them, stranding a pair of runners in the first, fourth and fifth innings. The 26-year-old right-hander has started four of the Pirates' 10 shutouts this season.

"I felt very, very confident that if he got us through five with a lead, that was going to be enough," manager Clint Hurdle said. "A good push-back outing for him."

Video: WSH@PIT: Polanco takes away hit with a nice grab

Center fielder Starling Marte gave Williams the the run support he needed against Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez, bashing a low changeup into the center-field shrubbery for a two-run homer in the third inning. Marte is 12-for-26 with two home runs and six RBIs in seven games since a brief benching/mental break on the West Coast.

"What I'm practicing the most and what I'm working on the most -- and I feel like it's working out, from what we saw today with the home run -- is just getting a complete swing -- a complete, full swing going up the middle," Marte said through interpreter Mike Gonzalez.

Video: WSH@PIT: Marte hammers a 2-run jack to center

With Williams out after five innings and 81 pitches, the Pirates turned to their bullpen. Pittsburgh has its youngest pitching staff, by average age (26.5 years old), since 2009 -- and that inexperience has most often manifested in relief. It was just a number on Wednesday.

For all of Pittsburgh's bullpen issues this season, four relievers have been reliable more often than not: Richard Rodriguez, Edgar Santana, Kyle Crick and Felipe Vazquez. None of them has an ERA higher than Santana's 3.32 or a WHIP higher than Vazquez's 1.30 mark.

Video: WSH@PIT: Vazquez strikes out the side to earn save

Rodriguez, a 28-year-old rookie, worked a 15-pitch sixth inning. Santana, 26, threw only 14 pitches in the seventh. Crick, 25, continued his remarkable run with a clean eighth. Then came Vazquez, their All-Star closer and most experienced reliever at only 27 years old. Vazquez struck out the side in the ninth to pick up his 20th save.

"I liked the matchups from Rodriguez, Santana, Crick and Vazquez," Hurdle said. "I liked the way we were going to go at that point. I felt that was our best way to win the game."

Video: WSH@PIT: Harrison makes great diving stop to rob Soto

MOMENT THAT MATTERED
Strong finish: After walking him twice earlier in the game, Williams faced Bryce Harper with two outs and runners on the corners in the fifth. Harper took three straight pitches to fall behind, 1-2, then Williams pumped a 90.8-mph fastball above the zone that Harper swung through and missed for what Hurdle called the "biggest out of the game."

Williams credited catcher Francisco Cervelli for "noticing certain tendencies" that improved their pitch-sequencing. Despite the earlier walks, Williams thought they had worked around the zone enough that Harper would swing if the pitch was executed well.

"There's usually one guy in a lineup where you wake up in the morning and say, 'He's not going to beat me today.' Harper, he has that reputation," Williams said. "He's a great ballplayer, there's no doubt about that. You can dial it in a little more, especially with guys on base. In that situation, it could have easily been a 3-2 ballgame if I don't execute a pitch."

SOUND SMART
Over his last 20 starts at PNC Park, Williams has posted a 3.22 ERA while allowing two runs or fewer in 15 of those outings.

Crick has made 12 straight scoreless appearances, establishing himself as Pittsburgh's second high-leverage option behind Vazquez. Meanwhile, Vazquez has 25 strikeouts with only two walks during his 12-outing scoreless streak.

HE SAID IT
"You see it every time he comes up to the plate. He gets everyone's best stuff. … Don't let the batting average fool you. There's a threat to hit the ball out of the yard at any given time. It's good. As a big league pitcher, you want to rumble with their best. It's fun to do that." --Williams, on facing Harper

UP NEXT
Right-hander Jameson Taillon will take the mound on Thursday night at PNC Park as the Pirates begin their final series of the first half with the first of five games in four days against the Brewers. Lefty Wade Miley will start for Milwaukee. First pitch is scheduled for 7:05 ET.

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

Pittsburgh Pirates, Starling Marte, Trevor Williams