Liriano hurls complete game as Bucs top Cubs
Left-hander is first Pirates pitcher to go the distance this season
CHICAGO -- In case you are getting comfortable with the notion that Dodgers phenom Yasiel Puig deserves to be a National League All-Star five weeks into his career, here's something else to kick start the old heart rate.
How about an NL Cy Young Award for a guy who did not even make his first start until the day before Mother's Day?
Francisco Liriano, putting his comeback into boldface, pitched the Pirates' first complete game in nearly a calendar year here on Friday, a four-hitter in Pittsburgh's 6-2 victory over the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
"This was an exclamation point on what he has been doing," said manager Clint Hurdle, sitting behind the same desk from where he had discussed the Bucs' previous complete game, by A.J. Burnett on July 31, 2012.
It was the second complete game of Liriano's career -- and his first also came in Chicago, when he no-hit the White Sox while with the Twins on May 3, 2011. One can conclude Liriano, new to the NL, also likes pitching in Wrigley Field: In two starts here this season covering 16 innings, he has allowed six hits.
"Yeah, I've pitched a couple of games down here and everything has gone well for me," Liriano said. "We won both games. I'm just trying to be part of the team and do my part."
Striking out seven while walking four, Liriano maintained his track record of earning a decision in each of his 11 starts and improved to 8-3.
Liriano became the 14th NL pitcher with eight-plus wins, and the only one among the other 13 with a lower ERA than his 2.20 is Jeff Locke (2.12). The teammates can fight it out for Cy Young Award votes.
The left-hander now dominating the NL -- yes, that must have something to do with the turnaround -- is the same one who last season, which he split between the Twins and the White Sox, went 6-12 with an ERA of 5.34.
"He knows the role he plays here now," Hurdle said. "Basically, the last two, three weeks he's been our No. 1, and he's acted like it."
This was the first time Liriano had gone beyond seven innings, which is virtually maximum effort for the Bucs. With Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli splashing in the Shark Tank, Pirates starters pretty much have to get out of the water after seven.
But a four-run lead helped persuade Hurdle to let Liriano finish the job.
"He was gonna go out for the eighth even if it was 5-2," said Hurdle, shaking off as influential the run the Bucs scored in the top of the inning. "We've got to keep pushing these guys out there. He's a veteran and a pro. Let him run out there and get it done.
"That was the feeling today. And any day we can give Melancon and Grilli a day off, that's money in the bank."
Not that pitching is all Liriano did. He singled for the Pirates' first run, in the second, off Jeff Samardzija, their former tormentor. In the ninth, Liriano fielded Dioner Navarro's leadoff comebacker between his legs while having his back to the mound.
"He's probably under the radar as one of the better fielders [among pitchers]," Hurdle said. "And his bat played a little, too. So that got everyone excited."
All it took for the Pirates to grab an early lead were a trio of "routine" developments: A clutch two-out RBI hit by a pitcher, a theft of home on the back end of a double steal and a hustle single by Jose Tabata.
First, Liriano: Following an intentional walk of Jordy Mercer in the second, he whacked a sharp single to left to score Russell Martin, who had doubled.
"I've hit before," a smiling Liriano said, trying to downplay the clout. "I enjoy hitting. We try to have fun. Yeah -- that was fun."
Next, the thieves: They had already taken the lead by scoring twice in the third -- on an RBI triple by Neil Walker, who then scored on Garrett Jones' single -- when the Pirates began, well, plundering with two away. With Andrew McCutchen on third, Jones took off for second to draw catcher Navarro's throw, which was not on time. McCutchen broke home, and second baseman Darwin Barney did not even bother with a return throw -- resulting in the Bucs' first theft of home since Ryan Doumit pulled it in Boston on June 17, 2005.
"You take a chance, especially with Jones -- not one of the guys you'd look for there," said Hurdle, citing the element of surprise. "The throw was high -- and Cutch had a perfect read."
Finally, the hustle: Tabata, whose occasionally dispassionate play helped earn him a Minor League demotion last season, beat out a hard grounder into the shortstop hole with two outs in the fifth to enable Jones, who had tripled, to score and make it 5-2.
The Cubs had quickly answered Liriano's run-scoring hit in the bottom of the second on a two-run homer by Scott Hairston, his seventh and only the third the left-hander had given up this season.
That must have upset Liriano, who had been taken deep in only one of his first 10 starts (the Reds did it twice on June 17): He retired 13 of the next 15; Navarro was the only one to break that streak when he rolled to Jones wide of first in the sixth and Liriano, covering the bag, could not find it with his foot after taking the feed.
"He's always been good," Navarro said. "He's so difficult to face because he almost throws every pitch at the same speed but with different actions. He did a great job. Russell behind the plate knows what he's doing too. We tip our cap to him."
Liriano's efficiency after his his "one mistake, a fastball right down the middle" to Hairston was abetted by Martin, who ended the eighth by picking Starlin Castro off second following his two-out double.