It would be inaccurate to label a two-game losing streak as a slump, but it sure feels like it when racing for a division title.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are in such a battle, so the seven shutout innings tossed by Francisco Liriano on Saturday night at PNC Park were much welcomed. The Pirates (66-44) parlayed Liriano’s latest outstanding start into a 5-2 win over the Colorado Rockies, cutting off their mini-slide and moving 1 1/2 games ahead of the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the National League Central.
The Pirates, who just beat the Cardinals four out of five times at home this week, were victims of high-quality starting pitching Friday night when Jhoulys Chacin held them at bay in a 4-2 loss. Liriano turned the tables on the Rockies 24 hours later, allowing just two singles in his 16th start, as his earned-run average dropped to a rotation-best 2.02.
Liriano walked five, but countered the free passes with six strikeouts. The Rockies put two runners aboard with one out in the first and third innings, only to watch the 29-year-old lefty wriggle free both times. Liriano gained effectiveness as the night went along, eventually retiring nine of the last 11 batters he faced.
While their surprising ace stifled Colorado, the Bucs gradually built a significant lead by scoring one run in five straight frames. Andrew McCutchen got the Pirates on the board with an RBI double to right field in the third, pushing another large PNC Park crowd to its feet. In Pittsburgh’s next time at bat, Jose Tabata drove a solo homer, his third, to right-center off Rockies southpaw starter Jorge De La Rosa.
Starling Marte walked and Jordy Mercer singled in the fifth to send De La Rosa to the showers, then Gaby Sanchez struck against reliever Adam Ottavino for his first of two run-scoring singles, bouncing a grounder just past Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki. Tabata’s leadoff triple in the sixth further boosted the Pirates’ offense; he came around to score one out later on Josh Harrison’s suicide squeeze bunt.
Colorado (52-60) broke the shutout in the eighth, as Pittsburgh’s Tony Watson was charged with a pair of runs when Tulowitzki and Michael Cuddyer picked up consecutive RBI singles. Bryan Morris entered the game prior to Cuddyer’s swinging bunt, but he escaped one batter later when Willin Rosario bounced into a double play.
In the ninth, Mark Melancon retired the Rockies in order to record his sixth save and reduce his ERA to a remarkable 0.86. The first-time all-star has gone 4 for 4 on save opportunities since Jason Grilli suffered a forearm injury nearly two weeks ago.
The Bucs will seek a series victory Sunday afternoon at 1:35. A.J. Burnett squares off against Juan Nicasio on the mound.
Notes: The Pirates drew 38,424 to PNC Park on Saturday, the team’s second straight sellout. Pittsburgh has averaged over 34,000 per game on the current homestand, which stretches four more dates.