For five innings, James McDonald overpowered the Nationals, his mid-90s fastball and dazzling curve holding them without a hit.
In the sixth, the Nats finally were able to figure the Pirates starter out, touching McDonald for three extra-base hits and three runs. But it just wasn't quite enough.
"We had a chance. We came back," manager Davey Johnson said. "The other guy pitched a heck of a five or six innings, but that was a tough one. We had runners on, we just couldn't get the big hit."
"We had opportunities. I had opportunities," said Ian Desmond. "Kind of squandered them, but we were right there. We could've won that ballgame very easily."
It was the McDonald curveball which still had Nats hitters shaking their heads after the game, as the big bending off-speed pitch left guys flailing throughout the night, even though it rarely ever actually passed through the strike zone.
"I don't know if it was appearing to be hittable but it had a big break to it," Johnson said. "Most of his curveballs, at least the first three innings or so, weren't even close."
What made the McDonald curve so tough to pick up?
"There's some deception in his delivery that makes that curveball look really good," Adam LaRoche said. "It's a good curveball, but it makes it look better. He's got a little hitch on his windup, and obviously it took some time to get on it."
Not only did McDonald strike out a whopping 11 Nats through his 5 2/3 innings of work, Nationals hitters also struck out to end threats in the seventh and ninth innings, stranding runners in scoring position. On both of those occasions, it was Desmond who went down on strikes to end the frame.
Desmond had four strikeouts on the night overall, but he was far from the only guy who had issues making contact. The Nats struck out 14 times overall with every starting position player going down on strikes at least once, and Ryan Zimmerman tallying three.
"I missed a lot of balls tonight," Desmond said. "Fouled them off. I don't remember a time in my life I've ever fouled off 20 pitches in a game, but just wasn't getting the barrel there."
"Major-league pitchers are good, and sometimes they just got you," Zimmerman said. "Every now and then there's a guy that gets hot and has a good out pitch like he did tonight."