Cueto gets best of Pirates, as Reds capture series from rival
CINCINNATI — Francisco Liriano was the ultimate lefty silencer last season.
He allowed just two extra-base hits to left-handers and held lefty hitters to a .321 OPS — the lowest all time for a left-handed pitcher who faced at least 100 left-handed batters in a season. In the wild-card play-in game against the Cincinnati Reds, he wiped out the lefty troika of Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo, limiting them to one hit in eight at-bats with four strikeouts.
As tough as Liriano was, it was going to be difficult to repeat that 2013 campaign. Regression might have begun Wednesday as Votto launched a two-run, seventh-inning home run, a pivotal hit in Reds' 4-0 victory in the rubber match of a three-game series.
The Pirates return home to face the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday after dropping six of nine games on their road trip.
After receiving Cy Young votes and being named National League Comeback Player of the Year last season, Liriano has regressed against lefties and righties early this season. Liriano has lost three straight starts, allowing 11 runs — all earned — in his past 19 innings.
Liriano (0-3) said part of the problem Wednesday was he was distracted — and not by Votto.
“I was paying too much attention to the runner instead of executing pitches,” said Liriano, who allowed three runs and six hits, struck out seven and walked three. “I was trying to go down and away (to Votto), and it was middle in.”
Liriano's focus was taken away from Votto by the world-class speed, and the threat of it, possessed by Reds rookie center fielder Billy Hamilton.
Before Votto came to the plate in the seventh inning, Hamilton reached on a force out. Perhaps because of paying too much attention to Hamilton, Liriano left a 93 mph fastball over the plate, and Votto crushed it into the right-field seats for a two-run homer.
Hamilton also distracted Liriano in the first inning.
Liriano began the game with a walk to Hamilton, and Hamilton appeared to speed up Liriano's game and affect his control.
Hamilton stole second base without a throw from Tony Sanchez on the second pitch to the following batter, Votto. The fourth pitch to Votto dropped into the dirt for a wild pitch, allowing Hamilton to reach third. After Votto walked, a wild pitch to Brandon Phillips allowed Hamilton to score.
Hamilton, who stole a minor league record 155 bases in 2012, allowed the Reds to score the opening run without putting the ball in play.
Also telling of Hamilton's influence: Of Liriano's first 13 pitches, 10 were balls.
Perhaps Liriano did not have enough nerves entering Wednesday's start. Liriano said a lack of sweaty palms also negatively affected him early.
“My hand was too dry. (The ball) was slipping,” Liriano said. “I couldn't feel the ball in my hand. As soon as I started sweating, my hand felt better.”
It was Liriano, and not Johnny Cueto, who dropped the ball.
The last time the Pirates faced Cueto, their lineup and a raucous PNC Park crowd rattled him, as Cueto allowed eight hits — including two home runs — and four runs in 3 1⁄3 innings in that October play-in game.
Cueto was better on his home turf.
He had swing-and-miss off-speed pitches and command of his fastball, striking out 12 — a career high — and allowing just three hits in his third career shutout.
Cueto (1-2) struck out every Pirates position player at least once, including Gaby Sanchez, Pedro Alvarez and Tony Sanchez twice each.
“Every one of his pitches he threw for strikes. He was down in the zone,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “What do you need to do to throw a game where you don't give up a home run (at Cincinnati)? He painted a pretty good picture for you.”
The Pirates fell to 7-8, a record they held last season after 15 games. They never again fell below .500 in 2013.