He did it again.
Much like last Wednesday, when the Pittsburgh Pirates needed Francisco Liriano to come through with a strong start to halt a four-game losing streak, the Bucs leaned on their newfound ace Monday night in San Diego. Liriano delivered once more, striking out 13 Padres over seven shutout innings as the Pirates prevailed 3-1 at Petco Park.
Partially due to the high strikeout total, the most by a Pirates starter since Oliver Perez whiffed 14 in 2004, Liriano couldn’t gun for another complete game like he had last week in St. Louis. Nevertheless, his top-shelf effort was enormous as the Bucs started a seven-game West Coast road trip after dropping two of three to Arizona over the weekend.
Liriano wielded his devastating slider to great effect, getting copious swings and misses at pitches out of the strike zone. The 29-year-old lefty allowed only four hits in dropping his ERA to 2.53, his second straight excellent start since allowing 10 runs in Colorado on Aug. 3.
Liriano’s prowess was needed as runs were typically difficult to create at Petco Park. The Pirates mustered five hits, two each by Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez, in winning for just the third time in their last 10 games. A costly Padres error gave Pittsburgh (73-51) its first two runs, then Alvarez teed off on young San Diego starter Andrew Cashner for his 31st home run, the most in the National League.
Following Liriano’s departure and a scoreless eighth from Justin Wilson, top Pirates reliever Mark Melancon allowed a rare run on a Nick Hundley RBI double in the ninth, but he struck out Mark Kotsay to end the game. The road win bumped the Bucs’ road record to 31-29 and kept them one game ahead of the Cardinals, who also won Monday, for first place in the NL Central.
The Pirates started the scoring in bizarre fashion in the fourth. McCutchen bounced a leadoff single up the middle, and then Alvarez jammed a single of his own through the shifted Padres defense, which featured three infielders to the right of second base.
The hit looked routine enough until right fielder Chris Denorfia completely whiffed on it, allowing the ball to roll all the way to the wall. McCutchen easily scored from first, then Alvarez slidingly followed him home on what was ruled a two-run, three-base error on Denorfia.
San Diego seriously threatened for the first time in the bottom of the fourth, loading the bases with two outs for former Pirates infielder Ronny Cedeno. Liriano shrugged off the challenge, getting Cedeno to ground out to third on a first-pitch changeup, keeping the score 2-0.
If what Alvarez hit in the fourth could be classified as a little-league homer, his next at-bat in the sixth ended with a big-league blast. The Pittsburgh third baseman turned around a center-cut fastball from Cashner and sent it deep into the southern California night for a 3-0 Pirates advantage. Alvarez’ 31st dinger of the season set a new career high and put him one clear of Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt for the league lead.
Meanwhile, Liriano was making that three-run lead seem much larger by continuing to shut down the Padres. His strikeout pace cooled a bit late – Liriano punched out eight through three innings – but he fanned rookie pinch-hitter Jaff Decker on his 104th pitch to finish his latest dominating performance with a flourish.
Wilson kept the strikeouts coming in the eighth, punching out two in a perfect frame. Melancon struck out the side despite hits from Chase Headley and Hundley, giving Pittsburgh’s pitching staff 17 Ks in the game.
Cashner pitched well for last-place San Diego (56-69), allowing three runs on five hits over seven innings. Logan Forsythe was the only Padre with multiple hits, getting a double and a single.
The Pirates will look for a second consecutive victory Tuesday night with A.J. Burnett on the mound, opposing San Diego’s Tyson Ross. First pitch is set for 10:10 Eastern time from Petco Park.