Clint Hurdle has mentioned in the past that there are certain “three-out sequences” that alone can determine the course a game takes. If there was one such sequence that played heavily into the Pirates’ 6-2 victory in Tuesday night’s National League Wild Card game, it came in the fourth inning.
The Pirates scored two runs that inning, but the impact of the inning came when no Pirate had a bat in his hand.
Francisco Liriano pitched a perfect three innings to begin his start against the Cincinnati Reds. As a result, the Pirates were able to build a 3-0 lead on the back of solo home runs off the bats of Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin in the second, and a sacrifice fly to center by Pedro Alvarez that scored Andrew McCutchen from third base in the third.
But what Liriano did in the fourth inning was even more crucial to his success.
Liriano’s short-lived bid for a perfect game ended almost as soon as the fourth inning began when he plunked Shin-Soo Choo on the right elbow leading off the fourth. Ryan Ludwick then recorded Cincinnati’s first hit of the game.
Ludwick’s basehit put runners on first and second with no one out in the fourth, and the Reds still very much within striking distance. Due up then was a veritable facsimile of a modern day Murderer’s Row: Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips, and Jay Bruce. With no outs, remember.
Liriano responded by striking Votto out swinging and inducing a popout by Phillips to Neil Walker in shallow right field.
It wasn’t all roses as Bruce was able to break through on a single to his opposite field and Choo scored from second to cut the Pirates’ lead to 3-1.
Again, Liriano responded with a strikeout. This time, it was Todd Frazier who flailed at a ball in the dirt and was put away on a throw from Martin to first base. Liriano escaped his most dangerous situation of the evening having allowed just a run on two hits.
“That was big for me, especially when I hit Choo, a left-handed hitter,” Liriano said.
Once the third ended, the Reds could not advance another man past second base against Liriano as he retired nine of the final 11 batters he faced Tuesday. Liriano put a foot down, as Hurdle is fond of saying, and helped the Pirates prevent the Reds from gaining any traction in the game.
“I believe that was one of those circumstances that happened in the game when momentum changed uniforms,” Hurdle said. “They had the guys they’ve been counting on all year to go out. We had the guy on the mound we were counting on. He was able to make pitches in nice sequences and stop that right there.”
Pittsburgh responded to the Reds’ one run with two of its own on a RBI double by Walker, who later scored when Byrd hit into a fielder’s choice. The 5-1 lead was plenty for Liriano and the bullpen to finish off the Pirates’ first post-season victory in 21 years.
Liriano finished his outing after seven innings, in which he allowed just the one run on four hits and a walk as he also struck out five batters.
“You talk about a guy pitching a big game for a franchise, for his buddies in there,” Hurdle said. “Excellent outing from Francisco.”
The excellent outing was capitalized by that fourth inning, which Reds manager Dusty Baker was on the receiving end of.
“That meant a lot to them. That was a big time in the game when we could have made some hay on the score,” Baker said. “We were threatening at that time and came away with nothing.”