The Nationals have struggled mightily to hit with runners in scoring position, changed hitting coaches, wondered if their season has hit rock bottom and fallen four games below .500 for the first time since Sept. 23, 2011.
They've dropped 10 of their last 12 games. In five tries since the All-Star break, they haven't won once.
If Stephen Strasburg was looking for an opportune time to give Washington a shot in the arm, it would be Wednesday night.
"There's a lot of character on this ballclub," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "There's no quit. There's a lot of fight."
Strasburg will line up opposite Pittsburgh lefty Francisco Liriano in Strasburg's first home start against the Bucs since his electric Major League debut on June 8, 2010.
Strasburg struck out 14 over seven innings in that start, but these certainly aren't the same Pirates. This year's Pittsburgh club, winners of three straight after dropping two to begin the second half, is fighting for first place in the National League Central and aiming for the playoffs.
But first, the Pirates must overcome the loss of closer Jason Grilli, who was placed on the 15-day disabled list Tuesday with a right forearm strain. General manager Neal Huntington said they won't know how long Grilli will be sidelined until he is reevaluated by team doctors. But in the meantime, the Pirates will lean on setup man Mark Melancon in the ninth inning, with Tony Watson, Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson contributing in the eighth.
Everything went according to plan Tuesday night. Morris pitched a scoreless eighth and Melancon closed out a 5-1 victory with a perfect ninth inning.
"We can't replace Jason, but it will be somewhat of a seamless transition," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "Tony Watson, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson have all been back there [in eighth-inning leverage situations]. We'll go the way the games flows. Right now, I don't want to settle on one guy."
Meanwhile, Strasburg is coming off a solid outing against the Dodgers on Friday, when he gave up two runs and struck out six in seven innings. He was encouraged after that no-decision that he had rediscovered a feel for his changeup, something he'd been missing in previous starts.
"It's still a work in progress," Strasburg said. "I went over some things in the bullpen with [pitching coach Steve McCatty] the last time out. I think it's definitely helped so far. Just going to keep on trying to get the muscle memory and get back to where I want to be."
Pirates: Liriano looks to bounce back
• Amid an excellent season, Liriano looked rusty after a nine-day layoff over the All-Star break. He pitched only 4 1/3 innings Friday against the Reds, his shortest outing of the year, and gave up five runs on five hits and four walks in the loss.
Hurdle noted after that start that Liriano had trouble repeating his delivery, leading to a lack of command. Back on a regular routine, Liriano hopes to get back to normal Wednesday.
"I think I was trying to overthrow in the beginning, so I couldn't have anything going," he said. "It was just one of those days when you can't get a good rhythm and locate your pitches. It was all over the plate, and everything was up in the zone."
• Neil Walker (right oblique) returned to the Pirates' lineup Tuesday night, going 1-for-4 with an RBI. Since the start of the 2012 season, Pittsburgh is 109-86 with, and 28-36 without, Walker in the lineup.
Nationals: Detwiler to visit back specialist
• In search of another opinion on his recurring back issues, left-hander Ross Detwiler is scheduled to see specialist Robert Watkins in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Detwiler has been on the disabled list since early July and has experienced various back issues since mid-May. Johnson admitted Tuesday that Detwiler may be sidelined for a while.
"[The doctors] have done a lot of tests. I think they want to get another opinion because they are not sure exactly what's reoccurring," Johnson said.
• Reliever Ryan Mattheus (broken right hand) pitched in a rehab game for Triple-A Syracuse on Tuesday night, recording one walk and a strikeout in two hitless innings. Mattheus is expected to get two days off then be activated Friday, when the Nationals play a doubleheader against the Mets.
• The Pirates haven't led the NL in saves since 1991. Their total of 36 leads the league and ranks behind only the Orioles among all Major League teams.
• The Nationals have six hits in their last 78 at-bats with runners in scoring position.