It’s difficult to expect a team to earn a sweep on the road, but with top starting pitcher Francisco Liriano on the mound Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Pirates were in optimal position to do just that.
Instead, the Milwaukee Brewers plated seven runs against Liriano in three innings, giving the home team enough cushion to cruise to a 9-3 win over their National League Central rivals at Miller Park. The Pirates (81-58) still won the three-game series and have taken four of their last six, but St. Louis crept within one game of the division lead with its victory in Cincinnati.
Pittsburgh also came up empty in its attempt to clinch a winning season for the first time since 1992. On Tuesday, the Pirates rallied from behind to ensure at least a break-even finish, ending two decades of losing baseball.
Milestones aside, the Bucs’ focus is now on making the playoffs and winning the division. Liriano made the quest for another victory difficult when, after a perfect three-strikeout first inning, he allowed a two-run homer to Khris Davis in the second and run-scoring doubles by Jonathan Lucroy and Aramis Ramirez in the third to put the Pirates in a 5-2 hole.
In the hitter-friendly environs of Miller Park, the game was far from over, but Liriano made a comeback even more difficult with a pair of avoidable miscues. First, he tried to start a improbable double play on a Jeff Bianchi comebacker to the mound, allowing Ramirez to score from third. One batter later, with pitcher Wily Peralta on deck, Liriano threw back-to-back wild pitches to chase home Yunieski Betancourt.
Liriano’s dud start was the third of its kind in the past month, all of which have occurred on the road. The 29-year-old lefty has surrendered one run or fewer in six of his last nine starts, but he’s permitted 21 combined runs in three stumbles at Colorado, San Francisco and Milwaukee.
Peralta was by no means dominant, but the young righthander was effective enough to get through six innings. The Pirates touched him up for nine hits, including RBI singles by Jordy Mercer and Marlon Byrd in the first three frames and Andrew McCutchen’s second home run in two nights.
The Pirates were close to breaking Peralta on more than one occasion. They went 2 for 10 with runners in scoring position, leaving five runners on in the first three innings and 12 for the game.
Hidden in the box score was a key missed chance in the fifth following McCutchen’s solo bomb, his 19th of the season. With Justin Morneau on first after a suspicious hit-by-pitch, Byrd ripped a double into the left-center field gap that third-base coach Nick Leyva sent Morneau home on.
After a slick Brewers relay, Morneau made the first out at the plate, keeping the score 7-3; Byrd was later stranded at third. The score was the same when John Buck flied out to center with the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh, ending Pittsburgh’s final serious threat of the evening.
Stolmy Pimentel made his MLB debut in relief for the Pirates, throwing 1 2/3 innings. He was charged with a pair of unearned runs in the seventh after Neil Walker made an errant throw on Ramirez’ fielder’s choice grounder.
The Pirates have a day off before starting their final confrontation with the Cardinals, at least in the regular season, on Friday night. Depending on Thursday’s result in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh’s lead in the Central will be either 1/2 game or 1 1/2 games.