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Bucs' bats get grounded as Cards even series

Liriano tagged with costly three-run first inning before settling

PITTSBURGH -- The Bucs already knew about Joe Kelly's knack for staring down opponents, even Pirates scions.

Saturday night, they found out Kelly could also stare down a Pirates ace.

The St. Louis right-hander, who famously had a post-National Anthem and pregame staredown with Dodgers outfielder Scott Van Slyke -- son of Andy -- during last October's National League Championship Series, took on Francisco Liriano at PNC Park.

And Kelly outpitched Liriano, hanging around long enough to earn the Cardinals' 6-1 victory.

Against Van Slyke, Kelly had been motionless, erect on the first-base line. On the mound against the Bucs, he was teetering every which way, but wouldn't topple.

"That number at the end of our line is what caused us the most difficulty," said manager Clint Hurdle, referring to the 11 men left on base. "He got the outs he needed."

Liriano blinked first, and it was enough to make people who had caught his previous work at PNC Park and against the Cardinals to blink twice.

Before there were two outs in the first inning, St. Louis had three runs -- or, one more than it had scored against Liriano in 24 innings in all of 2013.

It was a cold night -- first pitch, 44 degrees and dropping -- but Liriano waved off any notion of having lost to the elements.

"No. It didn't bother me at all," the Dominican lefty said. "Just one of those nights, when you don't have your stuff and you have to battle through. Especially against great hitters, you have to give them credit, too."

The ultimate toll of that was a loss, Liriano's second in 16 career starts at southpaw-friendly PNC Park.

Kelly allowed the Bucs six hits and a run in 5 1/3 innings, bullying his way out of multiple jams. Most notably in the bottom of the third, when two-out mayhem loomed as Travis Snider and Andrew McCutchen singled and Pedro Alvarez walked to load the bases. Then Russell Martin also walked, forcing home Snider.

That brought up Neil Walker, the career .447-hitter with the bases loaded. Walker did square up a pitch -- but spanked it right at shortstop Jhonny Peralta to end the inning.

"Of the six he was out there, we had four innings -- the first, the third, the fourth and the sixth -- with opportunities to cash in and we weren't able to do it," Hurdle said. "He was able to make good enough pitches. One ball was struck extremely hard -- Walker's."

Liriano was in trouble only once, but it caved in on him.

The first opposing batter has hit safely in each of the five games on this season-opening homestand. But the visitors did not have a first-inning score until Saturday night, when the trend finally caught up with the Bucs, in triplicate.

Matt Carpenter singled to begin things for the Cardinals, who would not stop until they had three more hits and three runs -- on a Matt Holliday single, an Allen Craig sacrifice fly, and another RBI single by Matt Adams.

"I thought we took some really good at-bats early in the game and hit the ball hard," Craig said "He was really good against us last year and that was frustrating. I think we made some good adjustments. We saw him a lot last year and weren't too successful. It always helps when you get to see a guy a few times."

"I think there were some technical difficulties in that first, just a mechanical glitch that he battled with," Hurdle said of his pitcher. "Then he settled down and got on a nice roll and gave us a chance to win the game."

Liriano rebounded from the wobbly start, retiring 13 straight men until Yadier Molina's solo homer with one out in the sixth.

The switch was flipped by his realization that this was not a night for him to rely on the fastball. He began to feature his offspeed pitches -- changeup, slider -- and those cleared his way.

"I was trying to use whatever I had, whatever was working for me," Liriano said, "and use both sides of the plate. My speed was a little bit down tonight. Whatever was working, I used more."

But the Pittsburgh offense could not rebound, held down by Kelly, who was shown the ultimate confidence by manager Mike Matheny, who let his pitcher bat with men on second and third and two outs in the top of the sixth -- even though he was already at 97 pitches thrown.

That trust misfired when Kelly had to depart an out into the bottom of the inning -- after he plunked pinch-hitter Jose Tabata with Travis Ishikawa already aboard via a single. But Carlos Martinez came on to retire both Starling Marte and Snider on infield grounders to protect the 4-1 lead.

It grew to 6-1 in the ninth on Peralta's two-run homer into the left-field corner off Jeanmar Gomez.

By that time, Liriano had virtually forgotten about his own tough time.

"Got to put it behind us, move forward and get ready for the next start," said Liriano, yes, staring straight ahead.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, Francisco Liriano