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Walker's late 3-run homer rallies Pirates past Cardinals

| Friday, May 9, 2014, 10:36 p.m.

The meeting between Carlos Martinez and Neil Walker in the seventh inning Friday night was a study in reverse psychology.

With two on and the Pirates trailing by a run, Walker fouled off a 100 mph fastball, the third pitch of the at-bat. It was the third straight 99 mph or faster pitch from the Cardinals' right-handed flamethrower. Martinez then went away from his strength. He tested Walker with a hanging curveball, which Walker fouled straight back to even the count. Walker was visibly frustrated, thinking he had missed his best chance at doing damage in the at-bat.

On the next pitch, Martinez again went to the curveball. It again hung seemingly suspended over the plate, and Walker did not miss. Walker drilled the breaking ball over Clemente Wall for a three-run homer to give the Pirates a 6-4 series-opening win against the Cardinals.

“(Martinez) feels like we are going to sell out for the fastball. If you can show that you are on his fastball, he is going to try to go to something different,” Walker said. “I wasn't trying to yank it. I was trying to stay on it through the middle. My thoughts were to shorten up, think fastball and adjust accordingly.”

Walker adjusted and hit his seventh home run of the season, tops among National League second basemen. Walker, already the author of two walk-off hits this season, produced another game-winning hit Friday, helping the Pirates (15-20) to their fifth win in their past seven games.

After a three-hit, four-RBI night, Walker has 22 RBIs and is on pace to easily surpass his career-best total of 16 home runs, set last season. He has cut his strikeout rate by five percentage points, and he also has improved his hitting from the right side.

“This is as healthy as I've been, and this is as confident as I've been,” Walker said.

Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano remained winless, but he showed some signs of improvement Friday.

Before Saturday's start, Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said Liriano had just begun to feel completely healthy. Liriano suffered a groin strain late in spring training that put into doubt his Opening Day start.

According to PITCHf/x data, Liriano's fastball topped out at 97 mph last season. He did not touch 95 mph in 2014 until the second inning against Allen Craig. Liriano's velocity was slightly up Friday, and he appeared to be more like his 2013 self in the first three innings. The left-hander did not allow a run and allowed one hit and a walk while striking out four over the first three innings.

“Last few starts, I've been feeling a lot better,” Liriano said. “It's not bothering me at all, now. I feel 100 percent physically.”

In the fourth, Liriano made a mistake. After allowing two singles, he hung a changeup over the plate to Craig, who launched it over the center-field wall for a three-run homer to give the Cardinals a 3-2 lead.

Liriano, who allowed three runs over five innings, was pulled as Hurdle went with Jeanmar Gomez, whose ground-ball rate is down (39 percent) and home run-to-fly-ball rate is up (21 percent) this season. In the seventh, Jhonny Peralta smashed a Gomez sinker to center for his eighth homer of the year — and fourth against the Pirates — to give the Cardinals a 4-3 lead. A Walker RBI single has tied the score at 3-3 in the fifth.

To begin the bottom of the seventh, Jordy Mercer and Gaby Sanchez reached on back-to-back singles and advanced on a Jose Tabata sacrifice bunt. Walker then came to bat and left the crowd wondering this: Where would the Pirates be without their second baseman?

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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