GAME IN A NUTSHELL: Seeking only their second 5-game winning streak of the season, the Nationals took the field tonight knowing they'd need a quality start from struggling Gio Gonzalez to have a good chance. They got neither that nor much of anything at the plate against lefty Jeff Locke, putting themselves in a 3-0 hole late. But then, lightning struck and suddenly a frustrating evening turned joyous for the home team and its sellout crowd.
Gonzalez once again battled, throwing 102 pitches in only five innings and giving up three runs in the top of the third to put his teammates in a hole. Not that it would have mattered much had the left-hander showed better form. The Nationals lineup was held to four singles and two walks by Locke, who also was aided by some sterling work by his defense to quash potential rallies.
Down to their final six outs, though, the Nationals stormed back to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth thanks to an RBI single by Kevin Frandsen (his third hit of the night) and a 2-run homer by Adam LaRoche that was lined just over the fence in right field. Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos then combined for the game-winning rally in the bottom of the ninth, with Harper drawing a leadoff walk, taking second on a wild pitch and then scoring on Ramos' ground-rule double to deep right field that gave the Nats their fifth straight win.
HITTING HIGHLIGHT: Shut down all night by the Pirates pitching staff, the Nationals finally got it going in the eighth, a rally kickstarted by Michael Taylor's speed and Denard Span's bat control. Taylor drew a leadoff walk and then showed off his speed going first-to-third on Span's single through the right side hole. That set the stage for Frandsen, who blooped a run-scoring single to right that brought the sellout crowd back to life. Anthony Rendon nearly killed the momentum when he grounded into a double play, but LaRoche stole it right back with his clutch homer to tie the game. It was the red-hot first baseman's fifth homer in his last 10 games, and it came at a most opportune moment.
PITCHING LOWLIGHT: If there was any hope that Gonzalez could put to rest questions after three straight shaky starts, this didn't exactly do the job. He needed 27 pitches to get through the first inning, and it only went downhill from there. The real trouble came in the third, when a 2-out walk to Russell Martin opened the door for a big inning. Starling Marte followed with an RBI double, and then Gaby Sanchez added a 2-run single on the very next pitch. To his credit, Gonzalez did manage to limit the damage to that, allowing just those three runs. But his pitch count once again soared (102 in five innings) which gave Matt Williams no choice but to turn to his overworked bullpen sooner than he preferred.
KEY STAT: Over his last two starts, totaling 9 2/3 innings, Gio Gonzalez has thrown 213 pitches.
UP NEXT: The series concludes with a rare, late-afternoon Sunday finale: Note the 5:05 p.m. start time. It'll be Doug Fister seeking his team-leading 13th win against right-hander Edinson Volquez, seeking his 11th.