SAN DIEGO — Once again, Franky said to Pirates fans: Relax.
Coming off the team’s two rough losses, starting pitcher Francisco Liriano sliced up the San Diego Padres for a season-high 13 strikeouts over seven shutout innings to pave the Pirates’ way to a 3-1 road-trip-opening victory.
“I’ve been getting a lot of swing-and-misses right now,” Liriano said about the start that followed his complete-game win in St. Louis. “Everything’s going the way I want it to.”
And it’s going the way the Pirates want it to. Liriano, baseball’s best starting pitcher and generating whiffs, got 23 Padres’ swings to miss over his 104 pitches. He kept the Padres off-balance on his changeup and out of sorts with his slider, striking out 8 of his first 11 batters en route to the most K’s by a Pirates pitcher since Oliver Perez in 2004. Pittsburgh’s 17 total strikeouts on the evening tied a franchise-high for a nine-inning game.
“He looked really fresh today,” Pirates catcher Tony Sanchez said. “He was throwing the fastball fairly harder than what I remember from his first two outings. And his slider had some bite, a lot of bite to it. With that downward angle, it was really hard for them to lay off it.”
Sanchez blocked many of those sliders that dipped from the strike zone into the dirt under swinging San Diego bats. Much of Liriano’s improvement this year (his season ERA is back down to 2.53) draws back to an offseason mechanical change that could be making that slider even sharper.
The 29-year-old pitcher says he brings his arm up higher over his head to better control his fastball, and the effect showed in only two walks Monday Night at Petco Park. Liriano is averaging 1.5 fewer walks per nine innings compared to last season. Then fastball location sets up the remainder of his repertoire for success.
“When I came here, I told [pitching coach Ray Searage] what I wanted to do,” Liriano said. “And he agreed with me. He helped me out with my mechanics.”
On the offensive side, the Bucs could only get five hits, but Alvarez provided all the run support. Pittsburgh’s slugger should thank Padres right fielder Chris Denorfia for his first trip around the bases.
After Andrew McCutchen hit a leadoff single to start the 4th, Alvarez hit another sharp single past the shifted San Diego infield and into the right-field grass. Denorfia charged with his glove drawn but whiffed trying to scoop the rolling baseball.
Off to the races. The ball skittered to the right-field wall as McCutchen scored easily. Center fielder Will Venable chased it to the fence, but Alvarez flip-flop dove into home plate before the Padres could even throw it to the infield. Alvarez’s run for glory was ruled a single and a three-base error on Denorfia, but El Toro’s hustling all 235 pounds was by itself worthy of an inside-the-park home run… in your heart.
But effort does not change a scorer’s decision, so Alvarez needed the genuine deal to take the National League lead in home runs. In the 6th inning, he saw Padres starter Andrew Cashner hang a slider down the middle and laced it into the right-field seats for Homer No. 31 and the Bucs’ only RBI of the evening.
“He’s a guy that’s got good stuff,” Alvarez said of Cashner. “He demands that you’re ready to hit every pitch, because he’s not going to give you too much to hit.”
Other than that missed pitch to Alvarez, Cashner looked strong, allowing only five hits over seven innings for the quality start.
Pitchers Look Dashing
Once again, Liriano acted as Pittsburgh’s stopper. Coming off a 10-run loss then a 16-inning loss to drop a home series to the Diamondbacks, the left-hander kept the Padres from doing much at all offensively. San Diego’s only threat came in the 4th when Liriano gave up a double to Logan Forsythe and walked his only two batters to load the bases. No problem for “Franky,” who got former Pirates shortstop Ronny Cedeño to ground out and keep a zero on the scoreboard.
“The one thing [Liriano’s] done this year is he has made better pitches,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He has kept the rhythm and the pace and the tempo. He’s got confidence with men on base. The running game’s, he’s handled.
“But making the pitches is probably the best he’s had in his career.”
The victory keeps the Pirates one game ahead of St. Louis and 2.5 games ahead of Cincinnati in the National League Central race. Justin Wilson pitched a scoreless 8th and Mark Melancon finished off the 9th (with two strikeouts each) allowing just one run to complete Pittsburgh’s 73rd win of the year, passing their total from the 2011 season.
This time last year, Liriano was holding an ERA around 5.00 pitching for the Chicago White Sox. Now he is the man the Pirates have continuously gone back to for top-notch starts that are stopping losing skids and propping up a tired bullpen.
Liriano himself can boil his obvious improvement down to one simple factor.
“Location. Things are all about location. I didn’t throw my fastball for strikes last year at all, or the year before,” Liriano said. “That makes the whole difference for me.”