WASHINGTON -- The Nationals have made a habit of squandering impressive pitching performances, and that trend continued on Tuesday night.
In just his fifth start, rookie Taylor Jordan largely kept the Pirates in check and pitched into the eighth inning for the first time. But as has been the case with most of Washington's rotation, Jordan was left hanging out to dry by the offense in a 5-1 defeat at Nationals Park.
"He deserved better," manager Davey Johnson said.
After their fifth straight loss and 10th in 12 games, the Nationals fell four games below .500 for the first time since Sept. 23, 2011.
"We've been pretty unlucky," Jayson Werth said. "You talk about timely hitting, lately it's been untimely hitting. Instead of getting the big hit, we hit the ball that ends the rally."
Jordan was pitching at Double-A Harrisburg one month ago. But on Tuesday, he was efficient and, for the most part, accurate against one of the best offenses in the National League. The 24-year-old allowed five runs (four earned) on nine hits over 7 2/3 innings. He recorded 14 groundouts and four strikeouts while throwing 99 pitches.
"I'm starting not to really care up who is up to bat. I still have to make my pitches," Jordan said. "I'm feeling a lot more comfortable up there."
On the day that new hitting coach Rick Schu arrived, the Nationals' bats couldn't give Jordan much support. They managed only two hits and one run against Pirates rookie starter Gerrit Cole, the first overall selection of the 2011 First-Year Player Draft.
"I tip my hat. That guy's got good stuff," Johnson said of Cole. "He was locating a couple fastballs -- one runner, one the bottom fell out -- and he had good breaking stuff to go with it. I can see why he was the No. 1 pick."
Last week, Johnson said that the Nationals are being hurt by a combination of small mental mistakes -- dropped tags, baserunning mistakes and wild throws -- that he called "the little things." And those are precisely what beat them Tuesday.
In the second inning, Washington's defense had multiple opportunities to help Jordan get out of a bases-loaded jam. With nobody out, the right-hander got Neil Walker to hit a grounder to second baseman Anthony Rendon, who flipped to shortstop Ian Desmond. But Garrett Jones, running from first, broke up the double play, and one run scored.
In the next at-bat, Jordan again induced a ground ball, this time to Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman's throw to second was on point, but Rendon peeked at the oncoming runner and dropped the ball. Another run scored, and all runners were safe.
"I saw [the runner] out of the corner of my eye," Rendon said. "He wasn't near me. I just tried to get a little too quick with it."
Then Cole lined a single to score the Pirates' third run.
"We're a little snake-bit," Werth said. "Things aren't going our way."
In another abysmal offensive performance, Wilson Ramos' solo home run in the third, which barely cleared the outstretched arm of Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen, was just a footnote.
The Nationals had only five baserunners. They have scored three runs or fewer in seven of their past 10 games and are hitting 6-for-78 (.077) with runners in scoring position during that span.
"That's just how baseball is, though," Rendon said. "You can hit the ball hard, 100 mph off the bat, and you come up the next at-bat and get a broken-bat single. That's just how it is. That's how the game's going. It's obviously not rolling our way right now, but it's going to click soon enough and I think we're going to turn it around."
Jordan left a changeup up in the zone with two outs in the eighth and Pedro Alvarez smoked it over the fence in left field to give the Pirates an insurance run. But the rookie exited the game to a loud round of applause after working past the sixth for the first time.
Ian Krol entered in relief, and the Pirates pinch-hit with Gaby Sanchez. Russell Martin stole second base and Ramos' throw went into the outfield. Martin advanced to third on the throwing error, and Sanchez's double brought him home to put the Pirates up, 5-1.
The Nationals had six outs to work with, but couldn't get back into the game. The small things continued to haunt them, and their season took another step in the wrong direction.
"I think at some point, the tide's got to turn," Werth said. "The luck's got to swing in our favor. And hopefully when it does, we can grab hold of it and run with it."