Francisco Liriano and the Pirates defense went out and did what playoff-caliber run preventers do. They frustrated and flummoxed the Washington Nationals over Liriano’s 7.2 shutout innings on the way to a 4-2 victory.
As the games against fellow contending teams become more important, we may see more pitchers’ duels like Tuesday’s face-off between Liriano and Stephen Strasburg. And it was a pitchers’ duel in every sense. All that separated the two power starters was a Pedro Alvarez solo home run (his 26th) that barely squeaked over the right-center-field fence. Liriano and the fielders were forced to be almost immaculate, and they were.
Liriano’s first four pitches were balls; classic control hiccup. After giving up the leadoff walk to Scott Hairston, though, the Pirates’ left-hander retired 11 straight Nationals batters. Liriano then took a no-hit bid into the 6th inning, and it only ended when Anthony Rendon reached on an infield hit by bouncing a ground ball too hot for third baseman Alvarez to handle. He gave up only one other hit: a Steve Lombardozzi single in his 8th and final inning.
Changeups and sliders kept the Nationals swinging and missing against Liriano. The Pirates’ starter generated 13 whiffs on those offspeed pitches while his fastball ranged between 93 and 97 mph. Changing speeds and dropping hooks on the Bryce Harper-less Washington lineup allowed Liriano to strike out eight batters and let only two baserunners into scoring position. His season ERA also drops to 2.23, which would be tied with Matt Harvey for 3rd in the National League if Liriano had enough innings to qualify. What a stopper.
Once the Starters Departed
Liriano was stellar, and Strasburg (8 IP, 2 H, 1 ER, 0 BB, 12 K, 19 whiffs) perhaps even more so. Then how did this become a six-run affair? Bullpens, good people. The Pirates earned three insurance runs in the 8th. Starling Marte singled and Neil Walker RBI-doubled off Drew Storen, and later Michael McKenry grounded a bases-loaded single for two more runs off Fernando Abad to put the Pirates up 4-0.
Pittsburgh lefty Justin Wilson got Rendon to pop out to end the 8th inning, but served up a two-run homer to Jayson Werth in the 9th to make it a 4-2 game and hasten Wilson’s exit. But just like a regular save situation, Mark Melancon entered with the bases empty and no outs. He threw almost all cutters to strike out Adam LaRoche, then two batters later draw a game-ending double play helped by Laz Diaz’s blown tag call.
The Pirates have now won four games in a row and send A.J. Burnett out Thursday afternoon against Gio Gonzalez to try for a four-game gut-punch sweep of the Nationals, one that could effectively knock preseason favorite Washington out of the playoff race. As for the Bucs’ playoff chances? They are nine games ahead of any team outside the postseason circle.