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Morton struggles again in loss to Nationals

| Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton throws during the first inning against the Nationals on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
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Pirates starting pitcher Charlie Morton is talked to by catcher Russell Martin as he walks back to the mound in the third inning against the Nationals on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
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The Pirates' Travis Snider scores as Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos can't handle the throw in the fourth inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
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The Nationals’ Asdrubal Cabrera tries to duck out of the way as Pirates catcher Russell Martin tries to make a throw as the Nationals’ Denard Span steals second base in the first inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez dives to field a hit by the Nationals' Denard Span, who was safe at first base on the play, during the first inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
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The Pirates' Michael Martinez shows his tattoo while holding his arm behind his back during the national anthem before playing the Nationals on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
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The Nationals' Bryce Harper reacts after fouling a hit off of his foot in the first inning against the Pirates on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
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The Pirates' Gregory Polanco slides underneath Nationals second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera as he steals second base in the first inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez tries to make the throw to first base, but the Nationals' Denard Span is safe during the first inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
The Nationals' Denard Span is tagged out on the steal attempt of third base by the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez during the first inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker bare-hands a ball hit by the Nationals' Ian Desmond, who was safe at first base on the play, during the fifth inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
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Pirates third baseman Pedro Alvarez tries to make a play on the Nationals' Denard Span in the first inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos can't handle the throw as the Pirates' Travis Snider slides safely into home during the fourth inning Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
The Pirates' Starling Marte (6) celebrates his two-run home run with Neil Walker (18) and Travis Snider (23) during the fourth inning against the Nationals on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.
The Nationals' Bryce Harper reacts after hitting a foul ball off his foot during the first inning against the Pirates on Friday, Aug. 15, 2014, in Washington.

WASHINGTON — One small step forward for Pedro Alvarez, another step back by Charlie Morton.

Alvarez returned to the Pirates' lineup Friday after a long exile on the bench and performed well at the plate and in the field.

Morton scuffled again. The right-hander was rocked early as the Washington Nationals held on for a 5-4 victory.

Morton (5-12) yielded five runs on seven hits. Although he worked only three innings, Morton threw 64 pitches.

“I don't think they were driving balls off me,” Morton said. “I was falling behind.”

Over his past seven starts, Morton is 0-3 with a 6.00 ERA and 1.54 walks plus hits per inning. He has not won a game since July 2, when he held the Arizona Diamondbacks to one run in six innings.

Morton seems baffled by his recent struggles.

“You could say that,” Morton said. “I'm (healthy). I just ... I don't know. You saw what happened.”

Alvarez drove in two runs with a double and a single. More importantly, perhaps, he played all nine innings at third base — flawlessly. Alvarez's two-out single in the ninth off Rafael Soriano scored Starling Marte to pull the Pirates to within 5-4. Chris Stewart followed with a single to put runners on first and third, but Josh Harrison fouled out to the catcher to end the game.

Second baseman Neil Walker started for the first time since Aug. 5 because of a cranky lower back.

“I had to make sure nothing crept up on me, and in the last two days, nothing did,” Walker said. “The muscle spasms are completely gone.”

Harrison made his first start this season at shortstop in place of Jordy Mercer, who was out because of right forearm tightness. That opened third base for Alvarez, who had not started a game there since Aug. 2.

Mercer said doctors found no ligament damage. He pinch hit in the seventh inning and made an out on a poor bunt to the first baseman.

When asked if the arm injury prevents him from swinging a bat, Mercer said, “No comment.”

If Harrison had not been forced to move to short, Alvarez would have made his debut at first base.

Alvarez began taking grounders at first base last week after his throwing problems at third became a crisis. Even as he learned the new position, Alvarez continued working at third base.

“He's worked extremely hard every day,” Hurdle said. “As things have played out, this is the way I chose to go tonight, and I think it makes sense for our club.”

Hurdle added a caveat: Alvarez has a very short leash.

“We'll watch him,” Hurdle said. “If we have a lead late, there's a good chance we'll (replace) him after his last at-bat.”

Alvarez was tested early. Leadoff batter Denard Span beat the infield shift with a grounder to the left side. Alvarez made a diving stab and an accurate, off-balance throw from one knee but had not chance to get Span.

Span was the first of six straight batters to reach base in the inning against Morton. Adam LaRoche and Bryce Harper lined RBI singles beyond Walker's reach, as the Nationals built a 3-0 lead.

The inning could have been worse. Span was thrown out trying to steal third base. And with Morton on the ropes, Wilson Ramos swung at the first pitch and grounded into an inning-ending double play.

Early leads are nothing new to right-hander Tanner Roark (12-7). In his 24 starts, the Nationals have scored 29 runs in the first inning.

LaRoche and Ramos lined run-scoring singles in the third to make it 5-0.

The Pirates got to Roark in the fourth. Walker doubled, and Marte followed with a home run into the left-field seats.

Travis Snider walked. Alvarez hit a two-out double to the gap in right-center field. The relay throw beat Snider to the plate, but Ramos muffed the catch and Snider scored.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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