Liriano outduels Strasburg, Alvarez homers in Pirates' win
WASHINGTON — Just 29 years old, Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano continues to evolve — and improve.
“When he was younger, he could throw 98 mph. He could really bring it,” teammate Jeff Locke said. “He can still throw hard, but he's really become a pitcher now.”
On Tuesday, Liriano dueled one of the best of a new generation of flamethrowers, Washington Nationals righty Stephen Strasburg. Liriano flirted with a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and Pedro Alvarez smacked a solo homer as the Pirates hung on for a 4-2 victory.
“Everything was working the way I wanted it to,” said Liriano, who gave up two hits and struck out eight in 7 2⁄3 innings. “I felt great out there.”
Liriano walked Scott Hairston to begin the game and walked Jayson Werth on five pitches in the fourth inning. But when Anthony Rendon stepped to the plate in the sixth, the Nationals still were without a hit.
“It was too early in the game to think about (a no-hitter),” Liriano said.
With two outs, Rendon lashed a two-hopper toward third base. Alvarez dived to his left, and the ball kicked off the heel of his glove. As Alvarez scrambled to recover, the ball slipped out of his hand and rolled into foul ground as Rendon ran to first with an infield single.
Liriano (10-4) leads the Pirates in victories despite missing the first month of the season while recovering from a broken non-pitching arm. He is the first Pirates starter to get a decision in each of his first 14 starts in a season since Jimmy Anderson in 2002.
In the third inning, Liriano humped a 97-mph fastball to Denard Span, who watched it for a strike. It was Liriano's fastest pitch since 2010 after topping out around 96 mph the past two years.
“I wasn't trying to throw hard,” Liriano said. “I'm not worried about speed right now. I want to make sure I locate my pitches, throw my fastball down and in.”
As his pitch count crept past 100, Liriano ran into trouble in the eighth. Steve Lombardozzi led off with a single and was sacrificed to second.
Hairston worked a full count, but Liriano twirled an 88-mph slider on the outer edge of the zone for a called third strike. It was Liriano's 110th and final pitch.
With righty hitter Rendon due up, manager Clint Hurdle called on lefty reliever Justin Wilson. It was not such an odd choice considering Wilson's splits are better against righties than lefties.
Chalk up another win for sabermetrics; Rendon fouled out.
With a fastball that touched 98 mph, Strasburg (5-8) racked up a season-high 12 strikeouts in eight innings. He allowed two hits and zero walks.
After missing the zone with a changeup against Alvarez in the second inning, Strasburg came back with two fastballs. The first one was 95 mph, and Alvarez swung though it. The next one was 96 mph but poorly located, and Alvarez sent it like a laser into the wind over the center-field wall.
“That ball Pedro hit gave me goosebumps,” Hurdle said. “I've seen a lot of home runs and a lot of hard-hit balls, but that one got my attention.”
It was Alvarez's 26th home run of the season.
The Pirates got three insurance runs in the ninth. Neil Walker hit an RBI double to left-center, and Michael McKenry had a two-run, two-out single.
In the ninth, Werth hit a two-run homer off Wilson. So much for sabermetrics.
Mark Melancon got the final three outs for his third save and his first since replacing injured closer Jason Grilli.