PITTSBURGH - Garrett Jones knew what was coming. So did the rest of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Problem is, Stephen Strasburg threw the ball so hard, it didn't matter.
The Washington Nationals right-hander struck out a season-high 13 batters in a 4-2 victory on Thursday night in a game that stirred memories of Strasburg's electric major league debut against Pittsburgh nearly two years ago.
The Associated Press
The Pirates’ Garrett Jones reacts after striking out with the bases loaded.
Mixing an overpowering fastball that topped out at 98, Strasburg handcuffed the Pirates for six innings, allowing two runs, one earned, on five hits.
"That's a good arm with a kid with a head to work with it," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. "The progress he's made in a very short period of time at this level is something."
Roger Bernadina and Adam LaRoche both homered in the sixth off Pittsburgh's Kevin Correia (1-3) to erase a two-run deficit.
Tonight: Houston at Pittsburgh, 7:05 p.m.
Pitching machups: Astros RHP Bud Norris (2-1) vs. Pirates RHP James McDonald (2-1)
Still, the Pirates had a chance to tie it or even take the lead after Strasburg walked the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth.
Even though 12 of Strasburg's previous 14 pitches failed to hit the strike zone, Jones swung at the first pitch he saw anyway, fouling it off.
The strike appeared to refocus Strasburg and Jones struck out on a 95 mph fastball.
"He gave me a couple pitches to hit," Jones said. "I just swung right through them."
Strasburg (3-0) lowered his ERA to 1.64 and Henry Rodriguez worked the ninth for his seventh save as the Pirates failed to earn their first series sweep of the season.
"When the stuff's working like tonight, you've got to go out there and just throw it, and it doesn't really matter what you throw," Strasburg said.
Though he lacks Strasburg's overpowering stuff, Correia nearly matched him out for out. Correia needed only 81 pitches to get through seven innings, his only slip-up coming in the sixth when Bernadina led off with a home run and LaRoche followed two batters later with a shot to center that gave the Nationals all the offense they would need.
"I needed to be efficient," Correia said. "I did that. If I could take back a pitch or two, it could have been a pretty good game. When you're facing one of the better pitchers in the league you've got little room for error and that cost us the game."
The Nationals have been one of baseball's biggest surprises over the first month of the season and began the day in a virtual tie for first with Atlanta atop the NL East. Still, manager Davey Johnson was so concerned after watching his squad drop three straight - including two to Pittsburgh - he called a team meeting a couple of hours before the game.
Johnson offered a gentle reminder to his young club that there's no reason to panic, and stressed he wasn't going to let a little dip lead to massive changes.
There's no need with the way Strasburg is pitching. The former No. 1 pick burst onto the scene nearly two years ago, striking out 14 Pirates during seven brilliant innings in his major league debut on June 8, 2010.
An elbow injury cut short his rookie season and required reconstructive surgery that sidelined Strasburg for a year, and the Nationals have been careful about bringing their ace along slowly.
It might be time to take off the shackles.
Strasburg struck out seven straight hitters at one point, mixing his sizzling fastball with a wicked breaking ball that kept the Pirates off balance most of the night.
"He thinks he's not throwing hard but the ball's coming out of his hand real quick, and he's also got a good changeup and a good curveball," Johnson said. "I mean, he's nasty."
Rick Ankiel added some insurance in the ninth with a solo homer and Rodriguez, who blew a save on Tuesday night in a 5-4 loss, bounced back by handling the Pirates in the bottom of the inning.
"You never want to get swept," LaRoche said. "So any time you're down two games in a series, it's always nice to pick up that last one. (Strasburg) pitched his butt off, got out of a couple jams for us and we were able to score some runs."
Washington rookie outfielder Bryce Harper went 1 for 4 and committed his first major league error in the fourth when he tried to gun down Jose Tabata at the plate. The ball bounced off catcher Jesus Flores, allowing McCutchen to move to second.
Game notes: Pittsburgh starter Erik Bedard, who left Wednesday's game after eight pitches due to back spasms, felt better on Thursday. ... Former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward took batting practice and threw out the first pitch. Ward, who retired in March, was selected in the 73rd round of the 1994 MLB Draft by the Florida Marlins. He chose to play football at Georgia instead. ... The Nationals continue a six-game road trip on Friday in Cincinnati. Washington's Gio Gonzalez (3-1, 1.72 ERA) faces Mike Leake (0-4, 5.97). ... The Pirates host Houston on Friday. James McDonald (2-1, 2.70) starts for Pittsburgh against Bud Norris (2-1, 5.48).