So here on the precipice of September, the Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals are back in lockstep, both 78-56, both frantically negotiating the treacherous footing at the top of the National League Central topography.
The all-systems-go, 5-0 victory for the Pirates Friday night not only pulled Clint Hurdle's team back into a share of first place, it kept intact a rather simple version of the summer's politics within the division:
The Pirates are murder on the Cardinals, thumping them Friday night for the ninth time in 14 meetings.
The Cardinals are murder on the Cincinnati Reds, smacking them 10 times in 15 games, that being the single biggest reason the Reds typically watch all of this from third place.
But a double-murder is where it stops. The Pirates Reds are essentially a push; the Pirates have won seven of those 13 meetings.
Where in the autumn world could all of this be heading?
"I don't know; I don't know," said Pirates catcher Russell Martin, wagging his head. "We're just gonna keep playin' tough. Keep bustin' our butts out there. There's really nothin' else we can do."
Tied at the top with 28 games to go, the Pirates and Cardinals meet five more times -- tonight, Sunday and all of next weekend in Missouri.
Were they to permit themselves one moment of reflection about who brought them to first place near the close of August, the Pirates shouldn't find it too complicated.
Francisco Liriano got them here.
All the way here.
Liriano Friday night became the first Pirates left-hander to win 15 games in a season since John Smiley and Zane Smith did it on the way to the 1991 National League Championship Series, and while that's not exactly Bucco trivia, the far more impactful truths are these:
In starts that followed a Pirates loss, Liriano is now 8-2 with a 1.26 ERA, 10 dominant appearances in which he has punched out 75 batters in 711/3 innings.
In its way, this 10th one was perhaps Liriano's most dominant yet, as no St. Louis baserunner managed to reach second, which is a good way to beat a lineup that includes five of the National League's top 10 batting averages with runners in scoring position.
Friday night, the Cardinals were 0 for 0 with runners in scoring position while Liriano was in charge.
Garrett Jones might have salvaged his summer, banging three hits including a home run and a two-out, two-run double, and the Pirates might have bounced back nicely on offense from being skunked by the Brewers the night before, but again and again and again, their destination is tied to pitching.
"We have to look for the subtleties of the game your team is going through, and we've had some challenges here that we haven't been meeting as well as we were in the first half of the season," said Hurdle about having lost 12 of 19 coming into this critical weekend. "Our pitching has ratcheted down a bit, going from being as good as you can be to now just really good."
Liriano rumbled through eight pristine innings, surrendering next to nothing -- a couple of two-out singles and a couple of walks. Of his 95 pitches, 59 were strikes, but all of that fell comfortably within his PNC Park bell curve. Along the Allegheny this summer, Liriano's ERA is 1.21. Opponents have hit .185 against him.
"I don't like to look at the numbers," Liriano said. "There's still a month left. Everything's been good so far. We got back into first place tonight but there's a long way to go.
"The reason they brought me here was to help them win some ballgames and that's what I'm trying to do. Just trying to go out there every five days, not trying to do too much, just trying to go deep into games. It's just fun to be part of this."
Liriano never looks as if he's carrying more than his share of this team's load, even as it's clear he is. When he has drawn the increasingly urgent St. Louis assignments, he's 3-0 with a 0.83 ERA.
"He's probably the best teammate on the team," said Martin, who piggy-backed Jones' homer in the fourth with his own to pump Liriano's lead to 4-0. "Whether he has a great start or just a decent start, he acts the same way. Doesn't really have a temper or anything like that. He kind of has the same attitude every day."
The attitude laid bare is that the Pirates are simply going to have to pitch like hell to win this division. A.J. Burnett will go tonight against 13-game winner Lance Lynn.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published August 31, 2013 4:45 AM