Cardinals clip Liriano, Pirates in series opener
The Pirates could not have asked for anything more from starting pitcher Francisco Liriano.
The left-hander handcuffed the St. Louis Cardinals for six innings Monday. Liriano had no margin for error, as the Pirates' only offense while he was in the game was Pedro Alvarez's solo homer.
“A well-pitched game,” manager Clint Hurdle said, “with no wiggle room.”
When Liriano left the game, everything fell apart.
A pair of two-out singles and an error by Andrew McCutchen helped the Cardinals score three runs in the seventh inning and rally for a 3-2 victory.
“We'll take any kind of win,” Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. “We've always had trouble with (Liriano). He's good, and he doesn't give up much.”
It was a rough way for the Pirates to start to a crucial nine-game stretch in which they will face the Cardinals six times.
Reliever Jared Hughes (6-4) yielded all three runs. Three of the four batters he faced reached base.
With one out, Tony Cruz lifted an 0-2 pitch into left-center field for a soft single.
“It was a location thing,” Hughes said. “I definitely didn't get it where I wanted it to be. I left it a little bit up-middle. He was able to put enough wood on it to get it into the outfield.”
John Lackey sacrificed Cruz to second base. Matt Carpenter walked.
Pinch hitter Jon Jay singled to center, scoring Cruz. When McCutchen booted the ball, Carpenter went to third and Jay to second.
“Jon was so ready,” Matheny said. “Even before I called for him, he was sitting behind me with his bat in hand, ready to go. He just sensed it. He always sees a big opportunity.”
Matt Holliday's two-run, ground-ball single to left gave the Cardinals the lead.
“I still have confidence in that pitch and in our team,” Hughes said. “If I continue to throw sinkers down in the zone, that ground ball will be hit to people, and tomorrow it will be a different outcome.”
Liriano tossed six scoreless innings. He allowed four hits and three walks, and struck out eight. He is winless in five starts since July 29 and owns just three victories in 23 outings overall.
“It's tough, but you can't do anything about it,” Liriano said of his low victory total. “Tonight, everything felt good. We just got the loss.”
Liriano was tabbed as the Opening Day starter after going 16-8 and being named NL Comeback Player of the Year in 2013. Yet, he has not performed like a staff ace.
Hurdle said Liriano's groin and oblique injuries are partly to blame.
“The other challenge has been (pitching) with consistency in the stretch,” Hurdle said. “It's something that's been challenging for him throughout his career.”
When they signed Liriano before last season, the Pirates knew what they were getting. In 2012, opponents had a .699 on-base plus slugging with the bases empty and a .796 OPS when Liriano pitched out of the stretch.
Last season, batters had a .578 OPS when Liriano worked out of the windup and a .663 OPS with runners on base.
“Last year, he was able to work through the stretch and made command pitches, get people out, keep it simple,” Hurdle said. “This year, it's been more of a challenge for him.”
Through Liriano's first 22 starts this year, opponents had a .687 OPS with the bases empty and a .694 OPS when he pitched from the stretch.
On Monday, Liriano was effective from both pitching positions.
Liriano had to go to the stretch for the first time in the second inning, when Jhonny Peralta reached on a fielding error by shortstop Jordy Mercer.
There's a theory that working out of the stretch can shave 2-3 mph off a pitcher's velocity. However, Liriano's fastball still hummed at 95 and 96 mph when he faced Oscar Taveras and Kolten Wong with Peralta on first base. Taveras flied out, and Wong bounced into a fielder's choice.
In the bottom of the second, the Pirates took a 1-0 lead when Alvarez launched a fastball from Lackey (2-1) into the visitor's bullpen. It was Alvarez's 18th home run.
The Pirates got seven hits and three walks off Lackey but never came up with a game-breaker.
McCutchen hit a solo homer on closer Trevor Rosenthal's first pitch of the ninth inning, his 20th of the season.