PITTSBURGH -- This was not a good night to be a locked-in pitcher rousted from his comfort zone.The Pirates' Kevin Correia and the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg were both in total control Thursday night at PNC Park until ... well, they weren't. Correia's brief meltdown was more enduring, condemning him to a 4-2 defeat in front of 15,381. Correia went toe-to-toe with another ace, and once again the Pirates' right-hander stubbed his toe. "Against a guy like that, you have to pitch a pretty good game if you're going to get the win. Which I think I did. I thought I did a pretty good job," Correia said. "Except for a couple of mistakes." Correia did stay with Strasburg -- effectively if not stylishly, getting one strikeout to his 13 -- for six of his seven innings. So this "nice try" was different, because Correia had Strasburg down, but couldn't finish him off by keeping the rest of the Nationals down. A brief sixth-inning Washington flurry turned Correia's 2-0 lead into a 3-2 deficit, and eventual defeat. "Kevin pitched a professional game," manager Clint Hurdle said, giving a basic yet ultimate compliment. "Nineteen batters retired on three pitches or less. Unfortunately, there was no safety net for him." Correia was efficiently brilliant through five, needing only 51 pitches to get through them with that 2-0 lead. Within the next 13 pitches, however, he and he Bucs trailed, 3-2. Roger Bernadina led off the sixth with a homer on a 3-and-1 fastball, Ryan Zimmerman walked, and Adam LaRoche smacked his 36th career PNC Park home run, second of this series. "He didn't want to walk Bernardina, and missed with a fastball over the plate," Hurdle said. "And the 0-1 cutter to LaRoche just spun, stayed in one spot. At this level, make a mistake, especially up in the zone, and hitters will find a way." "If I could take one pitch back, it would be the one to LaRoche," Correia said. "There's no room for error when you face a guy like Strasburg." The notion that it might be a long night -- or real short, depending on the perspective -- took root in the second inning, when Strasburg fanned the side on 10 pitches. Only a ball on an 0-2 delivery to Neil Walker kept him from the minimum. Strasburg couldn't stay on that track the whole night, but hugged it tight enough to finish his six innings with 13 strikeouts, his personal high of the season. But not the high for the Pirates, who only four days earlier had struck out 17 times against Cincinnati. Having been given his lead, Strasburg nearly turned his shut-down inning into a give-back inning. After dismissing the first two men in the bottom of the sixth, he walked the bases loaded -- his only three walks of the night -- before regrouping to make Garrett Jones unlucky No. 13 on a 2-2 pitch, his 103rd. Even though the three men immediately in front of him had walked, Jones offered at Strasburg's first pitch, getting a little piece of it for a foul. "I wanted to be patient," Jones said, "but he's not a guy who's going to walk a lot of guys. He's usually around the strike zone, so I was ready for Pitch One. I was looking for something offspeed, and he gave me the curve. After that, he came at me with fastballs. He's got that quick slide-step, so 95-96 [mph] gets on you pretty good." "That last inning I kind of nibbled a little bit and tried to throw the perfect pitch," Strasburg said, "then had to find a way to get the last out with the base loaded. It's a learning experience. I just have to remember to go out there and pitch to contact." Jones was the only three-time victim as Strasburg notched the second-highest strikeout total of his young career. He went beyond, with 14, only in his June 8, 2010, Major League debut -- against the Pirates, in Washington. Parallels to that celebrated debut were ridiculous because, although occurring less than two years ago, only three Pirates appeared in both games: Andrew McCutchen, Walker and Jones. Correia put in a solid seven innings (six hits, three runs), but might have better luck drawing short straws for dangerous assignments than with some of the mound opponents he has been drawing. Actually, that's been about the same thing. Strasburg was hardly a step up in competition for a guy who has already taken on Clayton Kershaw, Tim Hudson and Johnny Cueto, among others. "In his last outing [against the Reds' Cueto], one inning dinged him up as well," Hurdle remembered. When the Pirates had a chance against Strasburg's discouraging stuff, they converted. The right-hander was working on a string of seven consecutive strikeouts as the fourth began, but it ended quickly as Jose Tabata ripped his first pitch of the inning for his second single. Alex Presley's sacrifice bunt advanced Tabata, who then scored on McCutchen's single to right. Bryce Harper's errant throw to the plate ushered McCutchen to second, and Walker's two-out single to second cashed in the break for a 2-0 lead. "I thought we did an OK job," Jones said. "We got some runs, against one of the best out there." Hurdle, fresh off his first in-person look at Strasburg, wouldn't argue. "To the analytical eye," Hurdle said, "he throws his four-seam fastball up to 97, the two-seamer 91-93 with late life, he has absolute confidence in the breaking ball, and a changeup. His arm is fresh. Good composure. Pounded the zone. He's legit. That's a good arm, and the kid has a good head to work with. His progress in a short period is something."
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.