WASHINGTON -- The Nationals often couldn't touch Pirates starter James McDonald in the first part of Thursday's game. McDonald used a slick mix of sliders, fastballs and curves to not only keep the Washington batters off-balance, but make them look utterly helpless at times.
McDonald breezed through the first five innings without a problem. He retired the first 13 batters and struck out 10 in those five frames, taking a no-hitter into the sixth.
And though the right-hander then gave up three runs and couldn't finish the inning, his performance was the talk of the Pittsburgh clubhouse after the Pirates posted a 5-3 victory over Washington before 25,757 at Nationals Park.
McDonald (3-2) went 5 2/3 innings and allowed three runs on four hits, all of which came in the sixth. He struck out 11 and walked just one. He threw 60 strikes on 86 pitches in a performance that left Pirates manager Clint Hurdle very impressed.
"It was good stuff for five innings though, really electric," Hurdle said. "They were really having trouble tracking pitches. The fastball had such great finish to it, the breaking balls were sharp, [he was] mixing it up. At the end of the day, Major League hitters took advantage of [four] mistakes he made."
But McDonald didn't make many mistakes until that sixth inning.
He mixed the pitches so well that the Nationals (23-15) couldn't get in any kind of an offensive groove. In fact, they hit just two balls out of the infield in the first five innings. Actually, they hit just five balls in play in those first five innings.
They struck out the rest of the time.
"That curveball, we weren't getting on it for whatever reason," Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "We couldn't figure it out until late. By the time we did, in that one inning, he was out of the game. Too little, too late."
McDonald's curve was nasty, and his slider also helped out. The Nationals really had problems with the slider late in the counts.
"The slider was the good out pitch," McDonald said. "I think the fastball command kind of helped the slider today. [The] curve was OK. My goal is, at the end of the day, to see my team walk off with a victory, and we accomplished that today."
Catcher Rod Barajas (3-for-4) said they showed the Nationals lots of sliders and offspeed stuff the first time through the order, mixed in with some fastballs. The second time, they wanted to use the fastballs a little more, trying to not give Washington the same look twice.
Andrew McCutchen hit solo homers in the first and sixth off Nationals starter Jordan Zimmermann (2-4), while Barajas added a two-run shot in the fourth that helped the Pirates (18-20) to a 4-0 lead heading into the bottom of the sixth.
After Bryce Harper ended the bid for a perfect game by drawing a walk in the fifth, Jesus Flores ended any no-hit dreams for McDonald by doubling to start the sixth. Pinch-hitter Steve Lombardozzi followed with a double that moved Flores to third.
Ryan Zimmerman knocked a two-out, two-run single later in the inning, and former Pirate Adam LaRoche added an RBI triple after that to cut the lead to 4-3 and end McDonald's night.
But Barajas said it's easy to see McDonald's growth, and this night was just another example of it.
"I think he's learning to pitch," Barajas said. "He's learning to trust his stuff. He's competing, varying his pitch speeds, his location. He's just maturing as a pitcher."
The Pirates added an insurance run in the seventh when Neil Walker's forceout scored Josh Harrison, who doubled earlier. That was enough for the Pittsburgh bullpen, as Juan Cruz took care of the seventh, Jason Grilli the eighth, and closer Joel Hanrahan locked up his eighth save in the ninth.
Cruz and Hanrahan both needed to escape from trouble. The Pirates had their two-run lead, and Washington got runners on second and third with one out in the seventh when Cruz crossed up Barajas with Lombardozzi up. But the catcher somehow grabbed a fastball -- when expecting a softer pitch -- to prevent any runs. Hanrahan then escaped a two-on-with-one-out jam in the ninth by getting the final two batters to seal the win.
That gave McDonald the victory in another impressive performance. It's the second time he's flirted with a no-hitter this season. He took a no-hitter into the seventh inning versus the Rockies on April 25, allowing one hit in a no-decision that day.
Before this game, Hurdle said he can see McDonald's confidence growing. A performance like this one will probably increase it a little bit more.
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.