Liriano shuts down Cubs for Bucs at Wrigley Field
Lefty hurls seven scoreless innings, gets run support from Martin
CHICAGO -- There is no indication that Francisco Liriano, who had not received any scoring support in his two previous starts for the Pirates, had walked up and down their Wrigley Field dugout prior to the start of Friday's game exhorting, "Just get me one run, that's all I need."
There is, however, proof and precedent that he would have been right.
Liriano allowed two singles in seven shutout innings, leaving with a one-run lead on Russell Martin's run-scoring double in the sixth before the Bucs added on in the ninth for a 2-0 victory over the Cubs, snapping a three-game losing streak.
Remarkably, afterwards everyone agreed that it had been a struggle for Liriano, who fought his command all afternoon. It has been quite a "struggle" for the lefty in this season delayed by recovery from a right-arm fracture: He improved to 4-2 in his six starts, with a 1.75 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 36 innings.
"It was one of those days when you're missing your spots. I was missing with everything," Liriano said. "But you have to compete to the end. And Russell called a great game."
In his last win, Liriano also held the Cubs to two hits over seven scoreless innings on May 22, on that occasion pocketing a 1-0 victory.
Having seen his club get two-timed liked that moved Chicago manager Dale Sveum to compare Liriano to one of the Majors' most elite southpaws.
"When he's right and he has his velocity, he's basically in the CC Sabathia-type category where he has great velocity but really doesn't throw his fastball that much," Sveum said. "He's got great command of his changeup and slider. He's one of those guys where it's very, very difficult if he's on with his offspeed stuff -- it's going to be a tough day."
Liriano's catcher was a major accomplice. Martin again called for the pitch sequences that flummoxed the Cubs. Following Liriano's most recent outing, an 11-strikeout gem in a losing effort against the Reds, Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker had lauded him for effectively "pitching backwards," American League-style. That style basically calls for fastball pitches when ahead in the count, and breaking pitches when behind.
"For the most part, his best pitches have been offspeed," Martin said. "But he's used the fastball in normally breaking-ball situations. He's been pitching backwards, and it's been effective. Because hitters want to hit the fastball for the most part, anyway, and when you've got 94 [mph] they've got to honor that. So being able to throw offspeed pitches for strikes has worked for him."
Liriano has participated in two of the Pirates' 10 shutouts. That represents 28 percent of their total wins, and already matches the final total of 2012, when the team had a respectable rotation.
"That's a remarkable number," manager Clint Hurdle said of the shutouts. "It speaks to the job the pitchers are doing. We've been able to improve [our pitching] every year, and obviously this year, to this point, we've taken it to a different level."
Liriano lasted the seven innings despite five walks, along with eight strikeouts, pushing his pitch count to 110, his most since throwing 113 last July 31.
The Pirates then delivered their familiar one-two end-game punch of Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli, who closed it out for save No. 23.
With that classic Chicago wind blowing toward right field, it was a good afternoon for a pair of left-handers to be on the Wrigley Field mound, as Travis Wood went toe-to-toe with Liriano.
The wind was "friendly" enough to keep the most harrowing drive off Liriano in the "confines" of Wrigley Field. Alfonso Soriano hit it to dead-center in the fourth, with Anthony Rizzo aboard on a leadoff walk.
Soriano casually dropped his bat and slowly strolled out of the batter's box, so certain he was that the ball was gone. Liriano was as sure.
Andrew McCutchen caught the drive on the warning track, but still shy of the ivy.
"I was so happy I got away with that pitch," Liriano said. "I missed right down the middle."
Liriano still had the Cubs hitless until a one-out single in the fifth by his mound opponent. When that threat mushroomed on a walk and subsequent wild pitch, Liriano responded by bending three straight called strikes past Rizzo to end the inning.
"The third was a slider," Martin said. "He started it on the inner part of the plate, and it just locked [Rizzo] up."
It also, indirectly, ended Liriano's scoreless suffering, because the Pirates immediately came back with their first run in 16 innings behind him.
Jordy Mercer doubled with one out in the sixth and advanced to third on a McCutchen flyout. Then after Gaby Sanchez worked a full-count walk, Mercer came in on the double by Martin.
As meager as the 1-0 lead was, when Liriano returned to the mound, he got to make pitches with a lead for the first time since May 22. He showed his appreciation by dealing with the heart of the Cubs' order -- fanning Soriano, getting Scott Hairston on a grounder and, after a single by Welington Castillo, retiring Starlin Castro on a pop fly to shallow center.
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.