PITTSBURGH -- After a disappointing trip through Milwaukee and Kansas City to open the second half, the Pirates got back on track as they returned home with a 7-3 win over the Nationals on Thursday night at PNC Park.
The Pirates looked a lot more like the team with the second-best record in the National League than the one that limped through a 1-5 trip coming out of the All-Star break. Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Francisco Cervelli each went deep for the Pirates, turning around an offense that managed only one run in four of its last six games.
"We needed to get our game in a better place," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We were able to get our game in a better place tonight. I'm pleased the way we went about our business."
Left-hander Francisco Liriano led the way on the mound, striking out 11 and giving up just one run over six innings of work after being scratched before his last start with a stiff neck.
"I was just glad to be out there again and trying to help the team win some ballgames," Liriano said. "You want to be part of the team, go out there every five days. But sometimes things happen. Just hang with them and make sure you get ready for the next start."
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Flying solo: Liriano didn't look like he missed a beat Thursday night. The left-hander retired 12 of the first 13 batters he faced and did so almost entirely on his own. Through four hitless innings, Liriano racked up nine strikeouts and fielded three groundouts back to the mound himself.
"I can't remember a game, through four innings, where the only people that played were the pitcher, the catcher and the first baseman," Hurdle said. "And two of the plays he made were incredibly quick and athletic. It was good to have him back."
Halting an early no-no: Liriano was untouchable through four, and the Nationals cracked the scoreboard when they finally solved the southpaw. After Clint Robinson drew a walk in the top of the fifth, Desmond recorded Washington's first hit of the evening, making solid contact on an 84-mph changeup and moving Robinson to second. Robinson would later score on a wild pitch.
Pedro powers one out: Alvarez has struggled defensively and at the plate all season, prompting questions about Pittsburgh's need for an upgrade at first base before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Alvarez made a case for himself in the second inning, ripping his 13th home run of the season to left field off Fister and giving the Pirates a 2-0 lead.
"That was pretty impressive. But given the fact that we probably jumped into bed about 4 a.m. last night, it was kind of a nice ease into the game." -- Neil Walker, on Liriano taking the first four innings into his own hands after the Pirates' late arrival from Kansas City
"It's inexcusable. ... I messed up too many pitches, leaving them over the plate. I'm not going for the right pitches at the right time, and that's on me. ... I've just got to reevaluate myself." -- Fister, on his faulty performance on the bump
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While the Pirates have struggled within their own division, they have thrived against the National League East. The Bucs improved to 16-7 against the NL East this season, with a 12-1 record at PNC Park.
WHAT'S NEXT Nationals: After nearly completing a perfect game -- and having to "settle" for a no-hitter -- against the Pirates on June 20, Nationals ace Max Scherzer will look to continue the torrid run he's been on since as he returns to Pittsburgh against the Pirates at 7:05 p.m. ET on Friday at PNC Park. Excluding a five-run outing on July 7, Scherzer has a 2.03 ERA since his almost perfecto.
Pirates: The last time Pittsburgh faced Scherzer, Jose Tabata broke up a perfect game with two outs in the ninth by taking a pitch off his elbow. The Bucs will hope for better results this time out, as they send left-hander Jeff Locke to the mound against Scherzer. Locke has put together a 1.96 ERA over his last seven starts.
Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on
Twitter at @adamdberry.
John McGonigal is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.