MLB

Pirates-Nationals preview

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals are in first place and the Pittsburgh Pirates are trying to get there.

Two teams who have played well this month will meet on Friday in the first game after the All-Star break and the first of a three-game weekend series in the nation's capital.

The Pirates had a six-game winning streak snapped July 7 but have won nine of their last 11 games and 12 of their last 16, while the Nationals have won six of their last 10 games.

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Washington (54-36) is six games ahead of the New York Mets and Miami Marlins in the National League East. The Pirates (46-43) are seven games back of the first-place Chicago Cubs but just a game back of the second-place St. Louis Cardinals.

Pittsburgh went 9-19 in June but has played much better this month to get back into the playoff hunt again.

One of the bright spots is Pirates rookie infielder Josh Bell, who is 2-for-2 at the plate after he made his big league debut July 8. Did he worry when he would be called up?

"I really tried not think about that. I feel like in years prior, when I tried to push for a call-up or anything like that, that's when I press and that's when things started to go south for me, Bell told The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. I was just focusing on being the best player I could be on a daily basis, and it's working out for me."

The Nationals had four players appear in the All-Star game: outfielder Bryce Harper, second baseman Daniel Murphy, catcher Wilson Ramos and pitcher Max Scherzer. The Pirates had two: outfielder Starling Marte and closer Mark Melancon, who received a nice play from Murphy to get out of a jam in the seventh.

Washington manager Dusty Baker knew that appearing in the All-Star game would be special for Stephen Strasburg, who grew up in San Diego.

How you set up your rotation for the second half is equally important to us, Baker said in a telling comment that came a few days before Scherzer took the active roster spot of Strasburg on the National League club.

Scherzer threw a scoreless sixth inningon Tuesday for the National League in a 4-2 loss to the American League. That means he could be available to pitch Sunday against the Pirates.

The Pirates on Friday will start right-hander Francisco Liriano, who is hardly the pitcher he was in 2013 when he was 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA.

This year Liriano, 32, who made his Major League debut in 2005, is 5-8, 5.15 in 17 starts. He has thrown 92 2/3 innings and allowed a league-high 58 walks.

Strasburg will make the start against the Pirates Friday.

He did not pitch in the All-Star game something the Nationals approached him about. Strasburg was held out of the midsummer classic in order to be ready for the second half as he missed two starts earlier this season while he was on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation from June 26 to July 3.

"But it really wasn't a decision I had to think over," Strasburg told reporters of not pitching in San Diego.

He is 12-0 with a 2.62 ERA in 16 starts this year. Strasburg is the first National League starter to begin a season 12-0 since Rube Marquard in 1912.

He made his big league debut on June 8, 2010 against the Pirates, also at Nationals Park, and struck out 14 batters in seven innings, including the last seven.

Last year, on June 20, Scherzer no-hit the Pirates at Nationals Park after he came within one strike of a perfect game.

Strasburg last pitched on July 8 at New York and allowed just one run in seven innings in a win over the Mets. The next day Scherzer also allowed just one run in seven innings to down New York.