Just when about every fan of the team had assured him or herself that even if the Pirates don't win the Central Division title they almost certainly will get beyond the one-and-done wild-card game on the mighty arm of Francisco Liriano, along comes this.
An ugly four-inning, nine-hit, three-walk, 102-pitch performance guaranteed to test the faith of the faithful in Liriano's ability to navigate the crucial days of early October.
In truth, Liriano might have been spared a better fate with a bit of luck and some better umpiring as the Giants scored four runs in the first innings on an assortment of weak hits, infield outs and a blown game that turned a foul-ball into a rally-sustaining double.
Still, as the 102 pitches indicate, Liriano was not particularly sharp.
The Pirates never overcame the four-run first in what not only became a 6-3 loss but also the end of the team's time -- for now -- as undisputed leader of the division. The loss dropped them into a tie with St. Louis, which won its third straight at Atlanta, and enabled Cincinnati to move within 2 1/2 games of the lead.
The way this race is shaping up, there figure to be multiple first-place changes in the days ahead as the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds engage in numerous head-to-head matchups.
The Giants never got another run off Liriano, but he had men on base in every inning. The performance was nowhere near as ugly as his 12-hit, 10-run horror show in Aug. 9, but it was enough to reinforce the belief that no pitcher is a guarantee.
The Pirates made a run at starter Tim Lincecum and the Giants middle-inning relief corps but never got within two.
The San Francisco bullpen finished strong. With two on and one out in the seventh, Sandy Rosario got Andrew McCutchen on a fly ball to center and Javier Lopez came on to strike out Pedro Alvarez. It was the third whiff of the game for Alvarez. Santiago Casilla retired the Pirates in order in the eighth and closer Sergio Romo picked up his 31st save by pitching a one-hit ninth.
Rookie catcher Tony Sanchez hit his first MLB home run and had two hits and two RBIs. With Starling Marte placed on the disabled list before the game, Andrew Lambo was activated and started but was hitless in three at bats as his batting average dropped to .083 (1-for-12).
Jared Hughes gave the Giants a run in the fifth and Vin Mazzaro one in the sixth.
The Pirates have to decide if Hughes, ERA 4.62, and Bryan Morris, who pitched a scoreless eighth, but who has a second half ERA of 3.85 and a BAA of close to .300, are good bullpen fits for the team down the stretch or if there are better options at Indianapolis.
With first place at stake -- and you'll be hearing that a lot in the days and weeks ahead -- A.J. Burnett pitches against former Pirate Ryan Vogelsong in the series finale this afternoon.bobsmiziksports