For all the publicity surrounding lefthanded pitcher Jeff Locke and his effect on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ starting rotation, the offseason signing of fellow southpaw Francisco Liriano has been just as critical to the Bucs’ run-prevention success.
On Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, the 29-year-old Liriano turned in one of the best starts of his career, throwing the Pirates’ first complete game of the year in a 6-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs. Liriano dropped his earned-run average to 2.20 with his 111-pitch performance, the second time he’s gone the distance in seven MLB seasons.
Liriano’s only previous nine-inning start came two years ago on the South Side of Chicago, when the former Minnesota Twin no-hit the White Sox. Friday’s start wasn’t as clean, but he induced seven strikeouts and 14 groundouts to keep the Cubs at bay on just four hits. Since coming off the disabled list, Liriano has helped the Pirates to eight wins in his 11 starts, allowing two or fewer runs in nine of those.
The Bucs (53-32) rapped out 13 hits in taking the opener of the three-game weekend series, ensuring they’d stay at least two games ahead of St. Louis for the lead in the National League Central. Although they dropped two of three to the Phillies this week, the Pirates have won 11 of their last 13 games to claim the best record in the big leagues.
Pittsburgh plated five of its runs against righthanded Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija, beating the former Notre Dame football player for the third time this season. After last-place Chicago (36-48) took the lead on Scott Hairston’s two-run homer in the second inning, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones smacked RBI hits to put the Pirates on top 3-2 in the third.
Jones was involved in Pittsburgh’s fourth run when he stole second base later in the frame, drawing a throw from Chicago catcher Dioner Navarro which allowed Andrew McCutchen to sprint home from third. It was the first time the Pirates stole home plate since 2005.
Jose Tabata and McCutchen earned RBIs in the fifth and eighth innings, respectively, hitting productive ground balls to give Liriano a bit more cushion to complete his afternoon. The native of the Dominican Republic hadn’t pitched beyond the seventh inning this season prior to Friday.
This is Liriano’s first full-time tour of the National League, so he hasn’t had much experience handling the bat in his pro career. Nevertheless, he made the Cubs pay for intentionally walking Jordy Mercer in the top of the second, lining a run-scoring single to left to put the Pirates ahead 1-0.
Pittsburgh backed up Liriano’s reliable pitching with a speed-oriented attack, stealing four bases and hitting three triples. Starling Marte went 3 for 6 with two steals, extending his hitting streak to 10 games, while Jones, Walker and Tabata each roped three-baggers against the Wrigley ivy. Nine of the 10 Bucs to see action picked up at least one hit, with only rookie shortstop Mercer coming up empty.
The Pirates will attempt to clinch another series win Saturday afternoon at 4:05 Eastern time. Pittsburgh righty Charlie Morton will oppose Chicago’s Edwin Jackson.
Notes: Pirates catcher Russell Martin picked off his third opposing runner of the year, catching Starlin Castro too far from second base to end the eighth…Pittsburgh is now 24-17 away from PNC Park…Marte has a team-leading 25 steals on the year. McCutchen, who had one Friday, is second with 18…The Bucs’ three-triple game was their first since June of 2009.