Nationals offense chases hard-throwing Kuhl in Pirates loss
Chad Kuhl dialed up his fastball, but that didn't bother the Washington Nationals.
Powered by Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper, the Nationals went into Tuesday's game against the Pirates with the most prolific lineup — tops in batting average, runs, OPS and hits — in the majors.
"They've got two big bats, but it's the best offense in the league right now," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "They connect the dots from top to bottom (of the lineup), and there haven't been any soft spots."
Zimmerman did his thing, as did Harper. Even Wilmer Difo, who's batting .200, got into the act.
The Nationals built an early five-run lead and flattened the Pirates, 8-4.
Kuhl tried to quell the hard-hitting lineup with a fastball that touched 100 mph, which is 5 mph better than the right-hander's season average.
The extra giddy-up wasn't enough, though.
"I looked up and saw some decent velo, but it really didn't play as much as (having) a better angle on my fastball would've played," Kuhl said. "Wanting to enhance my pitches instead of just letting them play was a big part of it."
Kuhl (1-4) lasted just four innings and yielded six runs on 10 hits. His ERA swelled by nearly a full point to 6.69.
The Nationals took a 1-0 lead two batters into the game. Trea Turner doubled and scored on Jayson Werth's single.
Nationals right-hander Stephen Strasburg (4-1) needed 23 pitches to get through the first inning. Josh Harrison tied the score with a solo homer that hugged the left-field foul line.
In a way, Strasburg was fortunate to get out of the inning having allowed just one run. Sandwiched around John Jaso's double were flyouts by Andrew McCutchen and David Freese that had exit velocities of 103.3 mph and 104.9 mph, respectively.
Strasburg's control wasn't sharp, but he went from the second through the fifth innings without allowing a hit. Harrison broke that spell with a leadoff double in the sixth, but Strasburg quickly regrouped.
In the third, the Nationals had runners on second and third with two outs. Zimmerman — the MLB leader in average, slugging, OPS, total bases, RBIs and extra-base hits — came to the plate.
With a 1-1 count, Zimmerman lashed a 96 mph sinker off the Clemente Wall for a two-run double.
That hit underscored Kuhl's biggest issue. There wasn't enough difference in velocity between his two- and four-seam fastballs.
"You want some separation on those two pitches," Hurdle said. "He was out there giving everything he (had). Sometimes, giving everything you've got gets in the way."
Michael Taylor ripped another sinker for a one-out triple in the fourth. Kuhl then tried to fool Difo with a changeup but gave up a two-run homer.
"Bad location, bad movement — bad," Kuhl said.
Harper walked to start the fifth. After Zimmerman reached on an infield single, Kuhl gave way to Daniel Hudson. Matt Wieters lined a long, RBI single off the wall in right field to make it 6-1.
A throwing error by Zimmerman helped the Pirates score three runs in the seventh inning. The rally ended when McCutchen struck out swinging with a runner on third base.
McCutchen — who's batting .206 with a .670 OPS — then was removed as part of a double-switch, which not so long ago would have been unthinkable in such a close game.
Explaining the move, Hurdle said he knew Jose Osuna, who entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the No. 9 spot, would get another at-bat.
"There was no guarantee we'd get to (McCutchen's spot) again," Hurdle said. "So that's why he was taken out."
In the ninth inning, the Pirates put runners on second and third with two outs. Harrison struck out to end the game — with Chris Stewart, who would have pinch-hit in what was McCutchen's spot, standing on deck.
Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.