PITTSBURGH -- It began as a duel between Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg. It ended as a duel between Matt Williams' gut and Josh Harrison's heart.
Harrison won that battle of wills, as he has been taking everything all week, and as a result, the Pirates won a fourth straight game, 3-2, over the Nationals at PNC Park on Saturday night.
Harrison ripped the tie-breaking single off Strasburg with two outs in the seventh inning, after coming to bat on Williams' invitation. With a runner on second and two outs, Washington's rookie manager had obeyed his gut feeling -- and baseball convention -- by choosing to intentionally walk Travis Snider to get to Harrison.
"That's a baseball play. You see it all the time. So there is no grudge there," said Harrison of an intentional walk setting up a force at any base. "You don't look at it as a negative situation, but think, 'The pitcher's in trouble. This is good.'"
Harrison's clutch hit was simply the last stroke that turned this Memorial Day Weekend game into more than just one of 162.
It was already special, with two No. 1 Draft choices locking horns on a fabulous late-May evening on the bank of the Allegheny.
"A sold-out Saturday night. A beautiful day. You couldn't ask for anything more," Cole said.
The setting and the trappings were magnificent. As were the principals, who staged a worthy opening act to the end-game dramatics.
In the first of presumably many meetings, 2009 draftee Strasburg got the better of 2011 draftee Cole -- barely -- in front of a sellout crowd of 38,889 and a national TV audience.
Given the situation, the electric atmosphere -- and the outcome, following last season's blueprint -- Pirates manager Clint Hurdle allowed that, just maybe, this was the first time 2014 really felt like 2013 redux.
"As you start playing a little bit better, get some traction at home, the crowd is alive, the guys are feeling better about themselves," Hurdle said. "So yeah, you could throw it back to last year from that lens. I liked the fact we were down, we tied it up. We were down again, we come back and we battled and got through it with the bottom of the order."
The Bucs rallied into the lead in the seventh, which began with Strasburg ahead 2-1 and Russell Martin singling. Starling Marte doubled him to third with one away and pinch-hitter Jose Tabata's sacrifice fly delivered Martin with the tying run.
Although he had only three prior at-bats against Strasburg (two of them ending in hits), Tabata is quite familiar with the righty, the two of them having crossed other paths, such as in the Arizona Fall League. After Strasburg fell behind him 2-1 on a trio of fastballs, Tabata had an idea of what would be next.
"'OK, now I've got to be ready for the breaking ball.' That's what I was telling myself," Tabata said. "And he threw the breaking ball, so I was ready for it."
After Strasburg delivered two balls to Snider, also pinch-hitting, Williams ordered the intentional walk of the lefty hitter -- with Harrison, the Pirate of the moment, on deck.
Predictably, Harrison ripped the go-ahead single up the middle, scoring Marte for the 3-2 lead.
When that went into the books as the final score, the Nationals found themselves with a losing record for the first time this season.
"It's tough," Strasburg said. "We are pressing pretty hard. We are trying to get back on track. It is what it is. You have to keep grinding."
Sometimes, these things live up to the billing. History, not hype.
Strasburg pitched cleaner. Cole pitched grittier. In the six innings they shared, Cole had to deal with 10 baserunners, Strasburg had half as many. Yet the Cole Train pulled into the depot trailing only 2-1, a nice setup for The Vulture Club.
"I wasn't as efficient as I wanted to be in the middle of the game, but at the same time, I wanted to limit the damage as best as I could," Cole said.
In his six innings, Cole allowed five hits and two runs, with seven strikeouts and three walks, and also two hit batters. In his seven, Strasburg was charged with seven hits and three runs, walking two and fanning seven.
The victory went to Jared Hughes, one of the high-flying and low-swooping members of The Vulture Club, who picked up his third win after blanking the Nationals in the top of the seventh.
"The way the bullpen was able to finish it up," Hurdle said, "it was limited drama from the time Cole exited the game."
Jeanmar Gomez sailed through a five-pitch eighth, then Mark Melancon worked a perfect ninth for his ninth save.
This was the first such top-tier National League duel in nine years. On May 16, 2005, the Mets' Kris Benson met the Reds' Paul Wilson. Benson had been the Bucs' No. 1 pick in 1996, while Wilson had been the Mets' No. 1 pick in 1994 -- so you should be suitably confused by now.
The first threat, in the third, belonged to the Nationals. Unflinching Nate McLouth was hit on the right knee by 96 mph of horsehide and stole second before Anthony Rendon, winning an 11-pitch duel, walked with two away. Cole froze, and iced, Jayson Werth with an 87-mph changeup for the third strike and out.
Ian Desmond made an indelible mental note of that change. Because the next time he saw it, thrown to him on an 0-1 count with one out in the fourth, he sent it into the left-center seats for his ninth homer of the season and a 1-0 Washington lead.
Neil Walker erased that with his 10th homer into the Nationals' bullpen with one out in the fourth, but the tie couldn't survive Cole's search for an elusive third out in the fifth.
He got the first two right away. Then Rendon singled, stole second ahead of a walk of Werth and scored as Wilson Ramos knocked a 97-mph heater into short right, too deep for Walker and too shallow for right fielder Harrison.
"He was able to fight off that pitch in on his hands. It was nowhere near a strike," Cole said. "Pretty much where I wanted it. But you've got to keep making pitches, you can't beat yourself up."
Much better to beat the guys in the opposite dugout.
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.