As he has done so many times before in stretches when the Pirates struggle, Francisco Liriano delivered a masterful start to propel Pittsburgh to a 5-0 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. Liriano (15-6) pitched eight dominant, shutout innings and allowed just two hits while walking two as the Pirates (78-56) pulled into a tie atop the NL Central with the Cardinals (78-56) in front of a sellout crowd of 38,026, the 16th sellout of 2013.
“We played good defense tonight, I think it was the best night we played of defense so far,” Liriano said. “I used all my pitches, in and out.”
St. Louis put men on first base with two outs in each of the first three innings, but no baserunner advanced further as Liriano retired the next man up each time. From the fourth through eighth innings, Liriano retired 15 of 16 batters faced and coasted to win no. 15 on the season.
“After the third inning he locked down. A couple of balls were hit hard but he was in complete command,” manager Clint Hurdle said.
While Liriano breezed through the Cardinals’ lineup, the Pirates offense was jolted with the return of Garrett Jones who sat out the previous three games save for one pinch-hit appearance Tuesday night. Manager Clint Hurdle wanted Jones to get a little break, and it paid off as Jones went 3-for-4 with a solo home run and four RBI.
Jones kickstarted the offense in the first with a two-run double off St. Louis starter Shelby Miller, and put the Pirates ahead 3-0 in the fourth with home run no. 100 in his career.
“It’s always big to get on the board first,” Jones said. “Especially against an offense like the Cardinals and as tough offensively as they are, that could put a little negative taste in their mouth.”
Russell Martin followed with a 402-foot blast on the next pitch from Miller, a fastball left elevated and over the middle of the plate that Martin turned into his 12th big fly of 2013.
Miller finished the fourth, but couldn’t make it through after Jones struck again for a one-out basehit to drive Marlon Byrd home after Byrd doubled in the prior at-bat. Martin drew a walk from Miller, and Cardinals manager Mike Matheny pulled his starter.
Miller (12-9) took the loss in Friday’s decision, and allowed five runs on eight hits. Miller walked three and struck out three, with two of those walks issued to Liriano.
The Pirates got to Miller early, and continued throughout the game as the Cardinals’ starter was able to work just one perfect inning in the third, but allowed baserunners in every other frame he worked. Hurdle spoke pre-game about Miller pitching in the strike zone, and the Pirates’ approach to the match-up.
Hurdle’s hitters succeeded early, as Jose Tabata led off with a basehit to right and Neil Walker doubled to left as Hurdle said they “came out of the chute clean”.
“We’re always looking to go to the big part of the field. The ball’s away, you bang it that way,” Hurdle said. “We had a chance to make something happen, Jones started that thing off by getting a ball that he could turn on and pull hard.”
As the Pirates got to Miller’s fastball early, he started working with his off-speed pitches and cutter which hitters were able to wait back on and “wait for the mistake”.
“And if we got one, just cover it,” Hurdle said. “Make sure we work our hands and cover it and hit it to the big part of the field.”
Interesting enough, the centerpieces of the Pirates’ lineup remained quiet while the Bucs ran their record to 58-14 when scoring four or more runs. Andrew McCutchen finished 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts, and Pedro Alvarez went 0-for-3 with a strikeout and was hit in the ribs with the first pitch Miller threw him in the first inning.
Back to the mound, though, Liriano’s stellar outing followed one that was not-so-stellar when he allowed four runs on nine hits in four innings against San Francisco last Saturday. But as he has done multiple times this season, Liriano followed back with one of his best starts of the season.
“He’s a competitor, big time competitor and he’s gotten himself in a very good position this year,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “I think anybody of his experience and determination, when you get a little set-back like he has a couple of times, you come back and you want to get things right.”
Tonight, Liriano got it right. The Pirates’ ace kept the ball down, prevented a great deal of hard contact, got ahead of hitters with 18 first-pitch strikes, and retired 13 of 28 batters on three pitches on less. Much is made of the way the Cardinals hit with runners in scoring position, to the tune of a .327 average.
Liriano’s solution? Allow no one to reach scoring position, as the Cardinals pushed no one past first base against Liriano.
And as the game progressed, he worked in more of his secondary arsenal which made him virtually unhittable from the fourth inning on.
“He started getting the ball in, throwing strikes, we saw off-speed stuff,” Hurdle said. “When he’s got those three pitches, actually two of the different fastballs, it’s tough to square him up.”
Hurdle pulled Liriano after the eighth, and brought Mark Melancon in the game after he had not pitched in a game in six days. While Liriano, at 95 pitches, may have been able to throw another inning, Hurdle wanted to get his closer on the mound as he said Liriano was done.
“Frankie left all he had,” Hurdle said. “He emptied the tank on the field.”