PITTSBURGH — The Washington Nationals had their best hitter at the plate in a big spot. It just didn't work out.
Bryce Harper grounded out with two runners on in the eighth inning, and the Nationals went on to a 3-1 loss to Gerrit Cole and the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday.
Singles by pinch-hitter Anthony Rendon and David Espinosa chased Cole with two out in the eighth. Tony Watson then came in and Harper grounded sharply to right side, where first baseman Sean Rodriguez made a terrific grab on a high hop and threw to Watson covering first.
"We needed to get Harp to the plate as the winning run," Nationals manager Matt Williams. "It turned the way we planned."
Cole (14-4) allowed one run and seven hits while improving to 3-1 with a 2.40 ERA in four July starts. He also became the majors' first 14-game winner
Mark Melancon picked up his major league-best 32nd save with a scoreless ninth.
Michael Taylor put Washington in front with a two-out drive in the third for his second homer in as many games.
"I don't know what the heck Taylor did on that pitch," Cole said. "He was pulling off all day from the first pitch of the game."
Pittsburgh responded with two runs in the bottom half. Gregory Polanco and Andrew McCutchen each had an RBI single against Joe Ross (2-3).
Neil Walker led off the fourth with his ninth home run, extending Pittsburgh's lead to 3-1.
Ross retired nine in a row before Matt Thornton relieved him in the seventh. He struck out seven and allowed five hits.
"I felt pretty good," Ross said. "The guys behind me played great. They put the ball in play off me and our guys made the plays behind me."
Williams thought Ross' only blemish was Walker's home run.
"Other than that he was pretty good," Williams said. "He kept us in the game. Tough customer against us today."
Cole got a big assist from Polanco in the first after he left a pitch up to Harper and the All-Star lined it to the wall in right. Polanco fielded the ball as it caromed off the wall, and then sent a laser to second base that beat Harper and ended the inning.
"He did an excellent job of cleaning up that mistake and it just kind of set the tone," Cole said. "We were going to play crisp defense, we were going to come at you and it was a nice way to start the game off."
Pittsburgh set a PNC Park four-date attendance record by drawing 151,952 fans during the series against the NL East leaders.
Taylor collected five hits in his last two games of the series after a 4-for-38 skid in his previous nine appearances.
"It's nice to hit," Taylor said. "I kind of went through a tough streak. Hopefully, I can build off the last couple and have a couple of more good days."
Nationals: Rendon is working his way back from a left quad strain. He played in 18 of 19 games before he suffered the injury, which followed a left knee sprain that delayed the start of his season until June 4. The Nationals plan to limit his workload as he progresses back to playing every day.
Pirates: 3B Josh Harrison played catch and took ground balls. Harrison was placed on the 15-day disabled list July 6 after he tore a ligament in his left thumb.
Nationals: Washington enters the second leg of its 10-game road trip with a three-game slate in Miami. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (8-5, 3.30 ERA) opens the series against Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez (3-0, 2.77 ERA).
Pirates: Pittsburgh begins a six-game road stint with two games in Minnesota following Monday's off day. RHP Charlie Morton (6-4, 4.59 ERA) makes his first career start against the Twins on Tuesday night, and Minnesota counters with RHP Mike Pelfrey (5-7, 3.94 ERA).