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Prolific at PNC, Liriano primed to contain Cardinals

Bucs lefty gets Game 3 start at home, where he's thrived, especially vs. St. Louis

ST. LOUIS -- PNC Park will be dressed in black and booming for Sunday's Game 3 (4:30 p.m. ET on TBS) of the National League Division Series, with the series tied. But when the Pirates' Francisco Liriano stands 60 feet, six inches from home plate, you wonder if he'll hear a sound.

The pitcher's mound in his home park is Liriano's quiet effective place, where he thinks clearly and executes with precision.

"I think I've been able to execute pitches and have good location here, and the guy behind me makes some great plays for me here," Liriano said at a Saturday news conference at PNC Park. "Just be under control, not try to do too much. Just be more consistent with the strike zone, and like I said, not try to do too much. That's the whole key for me is trying not to overthrow."

In 11 home starts during the regular season, Liriano was 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA -- the lowest home ERA for a Bucs pitcher who started 10 or more games since Babe Adams posted a 1.31 ERA in 15 home starts in 1920.

Liriano, who turns 30 on Oct. 26, locked down hitters to the tune of a .172 batting average against and 72 strikeouts against 26 walks in 73 2/3 innings. The lefty gave up just two homers, as opposed to seven in 15 road starts. He went 8-7 with a 4.33 ERA away from PNC to finish the regular season 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA.

The postseason spotlight didn't bother Liriano a bit Tuesday, when he outpitched the Reds' Johnny Cueto and led the Pirates to a 6-2 victory in the NL Wild Card Game. Liriano gave up one run on four hits and struck out five in his seven innings.

"He goes out and gives us the type of outing he has given us at home -- we'll have a game that we'll have an opportunity to win," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's a very unique environment that's been building throughout the season. It reached a high point Tuesday night. I anticipate us seeing more of the same when we get back.

"But it's been a very, very good place for Frank to pitch, just with the sequence of pitches, the ability to spin the ball, still ride the fastball, pitch the right-handers in the big part of the park -- the left-center-field notch out there. It's all worked out very well for him."

The presence of their ace pitcher made Friday's series-evening 7-1 victory even more important to the Pirates.

"It's going to be a lot of fun," said third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who has homered in both NLDS games. "It's two great ballclubs going at it and a great atmosphere in Pittsburgh. We're looking forward to it. We're ready to have some good ballgames in Pittsburgh."

Liriano celebrated the win over Cincinnati by being even more quiet than normal, although truth be told, he was more quiet than he wanted to be. He was suffering with a sinus infection that night, and after the game, he downed water and antibiotics while his teammates showered in champagne and beer. But as sick as he was, Liriano's two-seam fastball and hard slider forced a whopping 14 groundouts, and the Reds' left-handed power hitters -- Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo -- are the ones who need an entire winter to recover.

Tale of the Tape: Game 3
Joe Kelly
Francisco Liriano
2013 regular season
Overall: 37 G, 15 GS, 10-5, 2.69 ERA, 44 BB, 79 SO Overall: 26 GS, 16-8, 3.02 ERA, 63 BB, 163 SO
Key stat: Kelly posted a 2.07 ERA on the road in the regular season. Key stat: Liriano went 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA at PNC Park this season.
At PNC Park
2013: 3 G, 2 GS, 2-0, 0.64 ERA
Career: 3 G, 2 GS, 2-0, 0.64 ERA
2013: 11 GS, 8-1, 1.47 ERA
Career: 13 GS, 9-1, 1.55 ERA
Against this opponent
2013: 6 G, 3 GS, 3-1, 2.53 ERA
Career: 8 G, 4 GS, 3-2, 3.38 ERA
2013: 3 GS, 3-0, 0.75 ERA
Career: 4 GS, 4-0, 1.16 ERA
Loves to face: Neil Walker, 2-for-11, 3 K
Hates to face: Russell Martin, 3-for-4, HR
Loves to face: David Freese, 0-for-8
Hates to face: Matt Holliday, 4-for-10, 2B
Game breakdown
Why he'll win: In his three starts against the Pirates this season, Kelly allowed two runs in 18 innings (1.00 ERA). Why he'll win: In four career starts, Liriano has won every time he's faced the Cardinals, posting a 1.16 ERA.
Pitcher beware: The Pirates are averaging 5.6 runs per game over their last five contests at PNC Park. Pitcher beware: Liriano has a 4.50 ERA (13 earned runs in 26 innings) in the first inning this season.
Bottom line: Kelly has come in as a reliever in the postseason, but has never started a playoff game. He'll need to keep his composure and pitch the way he did in September, when he posted a 2.10 ERA. Bottom line: Liriano needs to keep feeding on PNC Park's home cooking, continuing the dominance he showed in the NL Wild Card Game against a team he's had a lot of success against.

Liriano reported Saturday he's "kind of sick, my nose and throat." But what he said next matters most: "It doesn't bother me to pitch. I'll be OK."

The deep Cardinals will likely try to combat Liriano by inserting right-handed-hitting Shane Robinson in center field and Pete Kozma at shortstop for Jon Jay and Daniel Descalso, respectively. Robinson could bat leadoff and Carlos Beltran cleanup in a slightly reconstituted batting order, which will be trying to concentrate while surrounded by a crazed crowd.

"You know it's going to go down the wire. I think a lot of people expect that," St. Louis third baseman David Freese said. "Liriano has done a heck of a job against us. That place is going to be rocking, but we're going to be ready -- 1-1. It's not going to get any better than that."

The Cards need to find something that works.

"I hope the mindset is they can't wait to get back out there and compete, regardless of who they throw out there against us," Cardinals manager Mike Matheny said. "We've had some matchups with some guys that have had success against us in the past, and they've been able to get past what the projections are and just play the game.

"That'll be encouraging. They're going to do what they want to do and think how they want to think, but it would surprise me if they're doing anything different than just getting ready to go out and put their best foot forward."

Liriano won all three regular-season starts against the Redbirds, holding them to a .127 batting average and a .179 on-base percentage while posting an 0.75 ERA in 24 innings. Two of the wins -- a four-hit effort in a 9-2 victory on July 29, and a two-hit, eight-inning performance in a 5-0 victory on Aug. 30 -- were at PNC Park. Just to show the Cards that he's not just a hometown warrior, he threw a four-hitter to beat them, 5-1, at Busch Stadium on Aug. 14.

Liriano's last victory over the Cardinals put the Pirates in a tie for first place in the NL Central and helped solidify the fact that Pittsburgh would be afflicted with baseball fever into the postseason. It's only right that his next opportunity to feed the fever is at PNC Park.

Thomas Harding is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb.
Read More: Pittsburgh Pirates, Francisco Liriano