PITTSBURGH -- Obscured by, but certainly not lost in, the Pirates' 2-0 loss on Saturday night was the brilliance of Francisco Liriano, against whom the Reds managed to hit only three balls to the outfield in six innings. That even takes into account the four hits he allowed, two of them of the infield variety.
Dusty Baker noticed. Although his own pitchers, starting with Mike Leake, were tough enough to record a shutout, the Cincinnati manager was impressed by Liriano's 11-strikeout effort.
"Liriano was unbelievable," said Baker, who managed the Giants when they signed Liriano as a teenager in 2000 and saw his early development. "He was outstanding. He's back big time. I saw him as a kid with the Giants before they traded him to Minnesota.
"He was pitching backwards, like American League style. Breaking balls and changeups early in the count, and fastballs ahead in the count. A lot of times you see guys bring American League style to the National League and have a whole bunch of success, at least until they see your pattern of pitching."
Liriano has always been able to flash his enormous talents. Even last year, when he had a trying season split between the Twins and the White Sox (5.34 ERA in 34 games, and 87 walks in 156 2/3 innings), he produced back-to-back games in mid-July in which he struck out 25 and walked only four in 14 innings.
So the most encouraging aspect is that he has debuted with the Pirates with one of the most consistent five-start stretches of his career, with a 39-to-9 strikeouts-to-walks ratio for 29 innings. The 2.19 ERA is not bad, either.
Hurdle shakes up Bucs' lineup
PITTSBURGH -- Manager Clint Hurdle, an ardent music aficionado, went for an Elvis Presley classic in making out the Pirates' Sunday lineup: "All Shook Up."
The batting order against Cincinnati right-hander Mat Latos had Neil Walker in the No. 3 slot for the first time since last July 29, pushing Andrew McCutchen into the cleanup spot for the first time since Sept. 2, 2011.
And speaking of Presley … the new look began at the top, with Alex Presley remaining in the leadoff spot while shifting to right field -- despite the return of Starling Marte, dropped to No. 2 for the first time this season.
"I shook some things up," Hurdle said. "Just trying to find some way to move pieces around to generate some offense."
The Bucs went into the finale of the short five-game homestand at PNC Park having scored six runs in the first four.
Informed of Sunday's lineup, McCutchen raised his eyebrows and said, "Really? We'll see how that goes."
Presley stayed above Marte off his impressive first start of the season, not only going 3-for-5 on Saturday night but making pitchers work in a manner for which leadoff batters are valued. In his five at-bats, Presley looked at 30 pitches -- a huge chunk of the total of 149 made by three Cincinnati hurlers in their 2-0 win.
"It should be pretty potent at the top," Presley said of his and Marte's presence at 1-2. "It felt good to get that first start and get back in the flow of a Major League game. I was excited to get out there again."
Presley was recalled at the start of this series from Triple-A Indianapolis, where he was batting .281, with an on-base percentage of .373, in 41 games.
McDonald, Morton making strides in rehab stints
PITTSBURGH -- James McDonald didn't make excuses after he was roughed up in a rehab start on Monday, throwing 33 pitches in two-thirds of an inning.
He didn't blame his injured shoulder, or his month layoff. Instead, it was about throwing strikes and executing more efficiently.
The 28-year-old righty followed through on that on Saturday, allowing just two hits and a walk over four innings for Double-A Altoona. He threw just 38 pitches and will make his next rehab start for Triple-A Indianapolis on Thursday -- which is set for five innings and 80 pitches.
"Very efficient," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We just got to see both ends of the ruler [with the two starts]."
McDonald threw all four of his pitches on Saturday and only had one three-ball count. His fastball sat at 88-92 mph, and Hurdle called the start a "step in the right direction." McDonald has been on the disabled list since May 7 with stiffness in his right shoulder.
It is worth noting that the Pirates have him on a similar pitching schedule as Jeanmar Gomez, who started on Sunday against the Reds and replaced McDonald in the rotation last month.
Charlie Morton is also on that same five-day path. He underwent Tommy John surgery last June and hasn't pitched for the Pirates since, but was scheduled to throw five innings and 80 pitches in a rehab start on Sunday for Triple-A Indianapolis. Hurdle said Morton will focus on nailing his sinker and four-seam fastball, in addition to throwing his curveball and changeup.
When Morton and McDonald have completed their rehab assignments, Hurdle will have a difficult decision to make. Gomez (2-0, 2.30 ERA heading into Sunday) began the year as a long reliever, often mopping up the middle innings for Jonathan Sanchez, but has done all he can to stay in the rotation.
He hasn't allowed more than three runs or five hits in any of his six starts, although he's eclipsed five innings just once -- a seven-inning, three-hit performance against Detroit on Tuesday. The Pirates are 6-0 in games he's started.
Hurdle last discussed the topic a week ago, saying he won't have to worry about it until the time comes. That time is coming, however.
"Whatever decision they make is good for me, bullpen or a starter," Gomez said. "For me, I just have to be ready. I have to prepare for any situation, starter or reliever."
First number, last word
26: Pirates club record for consecutive saves to start a season, set by Joel Hanrahan in 2011. Jason Grilli is at 22 and counting.
"One of the most attention-getting things for me is the hitting with runners in scoring position -- all across the Majors. And the number of people being left on base." -- Hurdle, a hitting coach at heart, on trends to which the Pirates have contributed, batting .219 with men in scoring position and averaging seven men left on base a game.
• Jose Contreras (lower back) resumed throwing on flat ground on Friday, and is scheduled to return to the mound for a bullpen session on Monday.
• The Bucs hit four homers for all of their scoring in a 5-2 victory at Milwaukee on May 25 -- matching their total number of long balls in a dozen games around that occasion. They entered Sunday's game with two homers -- both by Neil Walker -- in their last six games. Pedro Alvarez proceeded to connect for a solo homer in the second inning of Sunday's game.
If you think that is odd, consider this: The Pirates owned a Major League-long streak of 48 straight games with at least one extra-base hit through Wednesday -- and did not have one in the three games since before Alvarez's shot.
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. Steven Petrella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.