PITTSBURGH -- On the longest day of the year, Francisco Liriano made short work of the Pirates. So there was no summer solace for the Bucs, who ultimately went down to a 2-1 defeat to the Twins in front of 19,878 at PNC Park.A taut southpaws' duel between the Pirates' Erik Bedard and Liriano was bequeathed to the teams' respective bullpens and tipped by Josh Willingham's tie-breaking homer off Jason Grilli with one out in the eighth. With the end of their three-game winning streak, the Bucs missed a chance to move within 1 1/2 games of the NL Central-leading Reds, who were again beaten in Cleveland, where the Pirates' winning streak had started. Taking a measure of revenge for the fellow visiting left-handers who have been abused all season in PNC Park, Liriano toyed with the Bucs until falling into a seventh-inning hole partly of his own digging. By then, he had made a profound impression on the Pirates and on their manager. Clint Hurdle recalled seeing Johan Santana do his thing here a couple of starts before the Mets lefty went into no-hit mode. But he hadn't seen anything like what Liriano had just showed him. "If you've ever had to try to hit that slider ... it's hard," Hurdle said of Liriano's money pitch. "He pitched an exceptional ballgame. Santana pitched a real good game here ... this guy was much better than anything we had seen previously." Pretty high praise, particularly for a guy who had taken the mound with a 1-7 record and 6.24 ERA. As they like to say in the trenches, "This is why we have to play the game." Minutes after the Pirates had drawn into a 1-1 tie on pinch-hitter Rod Barajas' sacrifice fly, Willingham ripped his 14th homer to left-center on an 0-1 offering from Grilli. "As soon as it left my hand, I wanted it back," Grilli said of the misplaced fastball. "But it's baseball; you just have to forget about it." Grilli might have an easier time forgetting about it than the half of the Twins roster that apparently had predicted a homer out of Willingham, who has made a habit of delivering the timely homer. "You're gonna have about eight guys saying they called that shot," said Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire. "It's probably the most obvious call in our clubhouse that Willingham is gonna hit that homer. They're all taking credit. So you'll see a lot of guys with ice on their arms for patting themselves on the back." Bedard had to re-visit some early-season misery. The left-hander, who at one point had an 0-4 record with a 2.62 ERA due to some ill-supported gems, got another dose of that medicine. He couldn't improve on his 4-7 record even as he was pitching four-hit ball through six innings. Bedard picked up seven strikeouts, while walking two, and completed his stint by retiring 16 of the last 18 men he faced. The way the veteran picked it up after a shaky first inning pleased Hurdle. There is no substitute for victory, but Bedard's precision almost made up for it. "He was so sharp the last five innings," Hurdle said. "It was very encouraging. After the couple rough outings that he's had, you got to see the guy that we were seeing early: more precision, more sharpness, more finish to his pitches. And the swing-and-miss-stuff." For the eighth time in Pittsburgh's last 10 games, there was first-inning scoring. The Twins exacted that first run, with a two-out rally converted on Trevor Plouffe's long RBI single to right-center. It took a long time, and ultimately a couple of breaks, for the Pirates to neutralize that early score. Liriano's trance, and his control, both waned in the seventh, when brushing Pedro Alvarez with a 1-2 pitch with one out diverted him. Clint Barmes pushed a single through the shortstop hole and Michael McKenry drew a five-pitch walk to load the bases. Center fielder Denard Span made a fabulous diving catch of Barajas' liner, but it still went for the tying sacrifice fly. "Did I appreciate that catch?" Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen said in response to a question about his peer's thievery. "No, I didn't appreciate it. That's the reason they won. It was one of those big-time plays that saved a couple runs." A recent banishment to the bullpen jolted Liriano back on track. Winless in five decisions with a 9.45 ERA when yanked out of the rotation in early May, Liriano served his 'pen penance, then resumed starting as a new man. Or, the old one of a few years ago. In the four starts prior to Wednesday night's, he had an opponents' average of .148 with 29 strikeouts in 23 2/3 innings. Then he gave the Pirates more of the same, in 6 2/3 innings allowing four hits and a run, with one unintentional walk and six strikeouts. "He'll come after you," Hurdle had predicted. "He'll try for strike one, then get you to chase the slider down. But when he's behind in the count and has to come in, that's probably how he was getting hurt." On Wednesday, there was little evidence of that. Discounting a sixth-inning situation in which Liriano was obviously pitching around McCutchen prior to giving him the intentional walk, he had only one three-ball count until losing McKenry.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.