SAN FRANCISCO -- A rapidly dwindling margin for error vanished Saturday night.
While the Pirates lost, 6-3, to the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park, the St. Louis Cardinals were busy winning their fourth game in a row. St. Louis, winners in eight of its past 10 games, moved into a tie with the Pirates for first place in the NL Central.
The Pirates (76-53) had stayed in front of the Cardinals by taking two out of three games from the San Diego Padres at the beginning of their road trip and winning the first two games against the Giants.
A rare poor start from Francisco Liriano and three wild pitches helped the Giants build a large enough lead that when the Pirates' offense got going, it was too late.
As good as Liriano has been this season, he assembled messy starts in two out of his past four outings. He allowed four runs on nine hits Saturday, needing 102 pitches to finish four innings.
"It was a battle out there for me today," Liriano said. "I didn't have my pitches, my location."
Three wild pitches by Pirates pitchers led, directly or indirectly, to runs. Giants runners advanced on wild pitches in the first and sixth and eventually scored, and Hector Sanchez came home from third on Jared Hughes' wild pitch in the fifth.
Liriano dug the Pirates into an early hole with a 38-pitch, five-hit, four-run first inning in which the Giants batted around. Three runs scored on well-placed weak contact, but the volume of base runners ensured that weak contact did damage.
Marco Scutaro led off with a single, which forced Liriano to pitch out of the stretch for the rest of the inning.
"[The slider] didn't have that bite or that depth that we had in San Diego," said catcher Tony Sanchez, who went 2 for 4 with his first major league home run. "The one thing that I think caused that was not getting in the rhythm from the start, not being able to go through the windup and get his mechanics to where he needs them to be for that slider to be effective."
Joaquin Arias' hit caught the chalk in the right-field corner, putting men on second and third. Buster Posey's soft broken-bat hit found a hole on the left side of the infield, scoring a run.
Hunter Pence grounded out. Pedro Alvarez fielded Brett Pill's check-swing dribbler down the third-base line, but couldn't hook up with Garrett Jones at first for the out and another run scored.
Pablo Sandoval's groundout scored a third run. After a walk to Hector Sanchez, Gregor Blanco, the lone left-handed position player in the Giants' lineup, sliced an RBI single to left field.
"I think I made some good pitches today and they found a way to put it in play," Liriano said.
Giants starter Tim Lincecum struck out, bailing Liriano out of the inning.
Liriano (14-6) allowed two batters to reach base in the second, third and fourth innings, but kept the Giants off the board.
Vin Mazzaro's 13 2/3-inning scoreless streak ended in the sixth inning when Sandoval's single gave the Giants a 6-3 lead.
Lincecum (7-13) left after 5 1/3 innings having allowed only three hits but walking four. He was charged with three runs, two of which he left on base when he exited the game.
Sanchez tomahawked a 3-2 Lincecum fastball into the left-field seats in the fifth inning.
"I definitely wasn't trying to hit a home run," he said. "I swung at a terrible 3-1 pitch. I figured he'd come back with the same pitch and he did. I just got barrel to it."
One of Sanchez's coaches at Boston College, Steve Englert, coached Lincecum in 2007 when Lincecum pitched in the Cape Cod League.
"My first AB, after he struck me out, I said, coach Englert says what's up," Sanchez said. "He started laughing.
"The next AB, I end up hitting that home run. He comes up to the plate, and he's just staring at me. I go, I'm going to text coach E."
The fans in the outfield seats threw a ball back on the field, but it wasn't Sanchez's home run ball. It wasn't even a real baseball: It was a Pony League ball.
"Surely not the ball that Lincecum threw," Sanchez said.
Plenty of baseball remains, including several games against the Cardinals, during the season's final five weeks. After Saturday, the two teams will start that stretch on even footing.
First Published August 24, 2013 4:00 AM