Pirates' Liriano strikes out 13 in 3-1 victory over Padres
SAN DIEGO — Francisco Liriano has become more than a strikeout artist this season. He has become a stopper, perhaps again an ace.
The Pirates' left-hander was masterful in a 3-1 win Monday over the Padres at Petco Park.
Liriano struck out 13 in seven innings, often getting ahead in counts and finishing off batters with his slider and changeup, both of which had Wiffleball-like break. The last Pirates pitcher to strike out at least 12 in a game? Kip Wells, who struck out 12 Phillies on July 5, 2005.
But more important than the strikeout total for the Pirates was the slowing of negative momentum. The Pirates began their West Coast swing having lost seven of nine games.
In his past four starts following a Pirates' loss, Liriano has allowed two runs in 30 innings.
“I just go out there and try to go deep into games,” Liriano said. “I don't try to do too much. Just hopefully keep the team in the ballgame.”
Pedro Alvarez hit his 31st home run, a career best, to also help the Pirates avoid a third straight loss.
The Pirates maintained a one-game lead over the Cardinals and a 2½-game lead over the Reds in the NL Central. The Cardinals and Reds won Monday.
Liriano allowed four hits and two walks in seven innings. Liriano threw 104 pitches, and 23 times the Padres swung and missed — a rare whiff rate for a pitcher.
“He's been our guy,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “He's been our most consistent starter and not only consistent, not just pitching us to a good part of the game, but really providing a challenge for the other offense.
“He continues to be masterful.”
Ten of Liriano's strikeouts came via his slider. Liriano got Will Venable, the National League's reigning Player of the Week, to swing over the top of fall-off-the-table sliders in the first and third innings.
“It looks like a strike out of his hand, but that's not where it finishes,” Hurdle said.
Liriano's changeup had excellent fading action. Yonder Alonso badly waved at a changeup for a strikeout to begin the second.
Ten of Liriano's strikeouts were swinging. But he painted the inside corner to strike out Chase Headley in the sixth with a 93 mph fastball. And it is fastball command that has dramatically improved for Liriano this season, allowing him to get ahead in counts and better put away batters with his offspeed pitches.
It was not a career high in strikeouts for Liriano; he struck out 15 Athletics in July 2012 with the Twins.
Liriano, who signed for $1 million guaranteed this offseason and has since met some incentives, didn't need much help.
He received all he needed from Alvarez.
Alvarez hit one big league home run, smashing an Andrew Cashner curve into the right field seats to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead in the sixth. Alvarez also added a Little League homer, lining a single to right that Padres right fielder Chris Denorfia overran for a three-base error.
Andrew McCutchen scored from first on the play. Alvarez rounded the bases in 16.2 seconds, sliding into home despite no throw to give the Pirates a 2-0 lead in the third.
McCutchen has six multi-hit games in his past eight.
The Padres threatened Liriano once, loading the bases in the fourth. Liriano walked Headley, allowed a double to Logan Forsythe and walked Nick Hundley. But he got Ronny Cedeno to ground out to Alvarez to end the threat.
The Padres didn't score until the ninth when Hundley lined an RBI double.
Liriano only allowed one flyball out. He had five groundouts in addition to his 13 strikeouts.