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After a strong finish to the first half of their MLB season, the Pittsburgh Pirates had expectations to also begin the second half strong, which meant traveling to Washington DC to take on the NL East-leading Nationals. Before the All-Star Break, the Pirates were 9-2 which included taking 2 of 3 vs. the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs which once again put them in Wild Card contention, and an outside shot at the division.

Unfortunately, the Nationals (56-37) had other plans as they welcomed the Pirates into Nationals Park Friday night and gave them a 5-1 beat down. What really hurt about that loss was the fact that the Pirates led the Nationals 1-0. Starter Francisco Liriano looked like the Liriano of old as he shut out the Nationals for 5 innings, but after giving up a run in the bottom of the 5th, Liriano and the Pirates fell apart as the Nationals scored 4 runs in the 7th to secure the victory.

Starter Stephen Strasburg (13-0) shook of that lone run and pitched a masterpiece, actually no-hitting the Pirates for 6 innings and continuing his consecutive-winning streak to 16 games dating back to September. For the Pirates, Liriano fell to a disappointing 5-9.

If Game 1 was bad, Game 2 was even worse for the Pirates as they hoped to tie the series with the return of starter Gerrit Cole, who had missed over a month with a triceps injury. Unfortunately, the Nationals spoiled Cole’s welcome-back party as they bombed him in a 6-0 victory. It also didn’t help that he had to wait out a 71-minute rain delay, but Cole just didn’t have it.

Meanwhile Nationals Starter Tanner Roark (9-5) did have it, as he allowed five singles with one walk and five strikeouts in his longest start of the season. He started the ninth but left after allowing a single and hitting a batter. The Pirates were also sloppy on the field as 2B Josh Harrison attempted toss to first base landed in the Nationals dugout as 2 runs scored.

The good news for the Pirates was that they avoided being swept by the Nationals as they were able to take the Rubber Match from them in a 2-1 victory on Sunday, but it took 18 innings to do so-and it was the Pirates’ fault.

It took 17 pitchers combining for 540 pitches in a bullpen- and stadium-emptying affair that lasted 5 hours, 48 minutes. It was close to ending a lot earlier – the Nationals were down to their last strike in the ninth inning when pinch hitter Daniel Murphy hit a tying home run of closer Mark Melancon to send the game into extra innings.

Pirates rookie starter Chad Kuhl had allowed one hit and two runners and struck out five in six shutout innings. He truly out pitched Nationals starter Max Scherzer, who wasn’t too bad himself as he gave up only one run and six hits and struck out seven in seven efficient innings.

9 more innings went by before Pirates LF Starling Marte decided enough was enough as he launched a solo home run off former Pirate Oliver Perez to give the Pirates a 2-1 lead. It was the longest game for both teams this season. The only longer game in the majors this season came July 1 when Cleveland beat Toronto in 19 innings.

Former starter Jonathon Niese (8-6) got the win after pitching 3 scoreless innings. It was his second opportunity out of the bullpen since being demoted out of the starting rotation by Pirates manager Clint Hurdle.

So now the 3rd Pirates are 47-45, 8.5 games back from the first place Cubs and they are only 2.5 games back from both NL Wild Card spots. But for them to gain ground, they desperately need to make a huge impact on their next home stand that begins Tuesday vs. the Milwaukee Brewers (39-51) as rookie Jameson Taillon (2-1, 3.86 ERA) is expected to start the opening game vs. RHP Chase Anderson (4-10, 5.44) The Pirates will then take on the Seattle Mariners (46-46) and then the Philadelphia Phillies (43-50) before taking the road. Many media experts feel like it’ll be an easy 8 games for the Pirates, but they have to prove it on the field.

Injury Report: OF Gregory Polanco remained out with a sore left hamstring, but Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington hopes he’ll play Tuesday against the Milwaukee Brewers. C Francisco Cervelli was set to play another inning on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Indianapolis, and Huntington said ”we’ll see” about him being back as soon as Tuesday.

In the NBA: According to Brian Windhorst of ESPN, LeBron told the NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers that he’ll re-sign sometime this summer but there isn’t a set time frame in which they’ll get that done. The cap has jumped $24 million since last year when he re-signed with the team and will jump again next summer. He can sign a one-year deal this time around for $27.5 million. The Cavs also still need to re-sign J.R. Smith, who intends to remain with the Cavs, and their coach Tyronn Lue…OKC’s Russell Westbrook is reportedly angered by the departure of former teammate Kevin Durant (who joined the Golden State Warriors) and although the rumors that the eventual 2017 free agent may also depart, that he’s just ready to ‘move forward.’

In the NFL: The Miami Dolphins reportedly have signed former Houston Texas RB Arian Foster to a 1-year deal. In seven seasons with Houston, Foster rushed for 6,472 yards, averaged 4.5 yards per carry and scored 68 touchdowns. Injuries however, limited his production, with his 2015 season getting cut short due to an Achilles tear, which just happened to occur against the Dolphins.

Please e-mail Ray at ray@urbanmediatoday.com

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