PITTSBURGH -- On Marathon Day in the city, the Bucs came out of the PNC Park gate like racecourse rabbits, setting a blistering pace. But they couldn't run away from Gio Gonzalez, who used his second wind to knock the wind out of the Bucs.
The story of the 6-2 loss to the Nationals was written early, long before Tyler Moore's three-run homer off Bryan Morris in the eighth ended any suspense.
The Bucs' best chance to avoid losing consecutive home games for the first time this season came early, and went quickly.
One always hears the advisory about premium pitchers, "You gotta get him early, before he gets locked in." It's a baseball cliche. Except when it's true, and Gonzalez gave his demonstration.
"We had a chance to push him out the door," manager Clint Hurdle lamented, "or, at least, create some separation early. We missed that opportunity."
Starling Marte led off the first with a first-pitch home run, after which the Bucs proceded to load the bases, still with none out: Jordy Mercer doubled up the right-center alley, Andrew McCutchen reached on third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's throwing error and Gaby Sanchez walked.
"Bunch of guys on real fast ... we've got to take advantage of that," Michael McKenry said. "Especially with that guy."
But Gonzalez answered his wake-up call. He fanned both Russell Martin and McKenry and retired Brandon Inge on a grounder -- although it took a terrific play by shortstop Ian Desmond to handle his hard smash up the middle.
"I got myself out. Gio is a good pitcher, but I don't want to give him more credit than he deserves," McKenry said. "Sometimes it happens, but we can't let it happen often. I should've picked up a run there. You don't want to let a pitcher like that off the hook."
It was the last time the Bucs would get multiple runners on base against the lefty. In fact, they would have only five baserunners the rest of the game off Gonzalez and the three relievers who finished up for him.
The Pirates did scratch within a run in the sixth. Sanchez got an infield single off Gonzalez's glove and scored on Martin's double by kicking the relay throw out of catcher Wilson Ramos' mitt.
That run, incidentally, was the Pirates' ninth of the series -- but the first scored without a home run.
The Nationals had tied Pirates starter Wandy Rodriguez at 1 in the second on Danny Espinosa's sacrifice fly -- their fourth in two days.
After Zimmerman had led off with a walk, he was doubled into scoring position by Adam LaRoche, who at one-time owned a Pirates uniform as their first baseman and now owns the whole team: While batting .168 overall, he is 4-for-7 against the Bucs, about what he did against them last season, when he hit .500 with three homers and nine RBIs in only five games.
The identical combo gave Washington a 3-1 lead in the fourth. Zimmerman this time started it with a single, and two outs later, Espinosa clubbed his third homer deep into the left-field corner.
"I tried to go in on him," Rodriguez said, "but the curveball stayed down the middle."
By the end of that inning, Rodriguez had thrown 87 pitches, but he gutted his way through two more innings to leave a manageable load for the Pirates' thin bullpen, in which lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson weren't available after having worked multiple innings the day before.
Jose Contreras made his debut with the Pirates in the seventh, striking out two in a scoreless inning.
"One quick look, I liked what I saw," Hurdle said. "His velocity was there, and he threw free and easy. Four-for-four on first pitch strikes is always a good thing. As are back-to-back punchouts. Looked good."
Morris took his turn in the eighth, and was immediately put on the defensive by Roger Bernadina's leadoff bunt single. After Bernadina advanced on Zimmerman's grounder, the decision to intentionally walk LaRoche was spoiled by Moore's drive into the left-field bleachers.
"He's been on base all weekend," Hurdle said, referring to LaRoche. "He's seeing the ball good .... left-handed hitter ... we figured we'd go right-on-right and see how that played out.
"It didn't go very well."
One thing that obviously continues to go very well is the coming-out party of Marte. A common preseason assessment of Marte's potential projected him capable of having a Mike Trout-like impact, a nod to his comparable complement of baseball's five tools. Such reasoning also had a lot to do with Marte, as Trout did in 2011, breaking in the last couple months of the 2012 season -- when in fact he outdid Trout's debut showing.
And, well, what do you know? Marte is still one-upping the Angels' prized young outfielder, at the 30-game stage of their first full Major League seasons:
• Trout: .303 average, five homers, 16 RBIs, and 8-for-10 in stolen base attempts.
• Marte: .325, five homers, 16 RBIs, 10-for-12 in stolen base attempts.
"The Angels didn't know what they had either until later in the season," said Hurdle, who otherwise shrugged off any comparisons by repeating his reluctance to "put any expectations on Starling."
"But," his manager added, "he comes as advertised."
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.