Pirates lose crucial game as Liriano falters

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This was not the kind of start the Pirates wanted from Francisco Liriano, who was in his likely final outing of the regular season before pitching the team's first playoff game since 1992.

Nor was it the outcome the team needed, as the scoreboard told them the Cincinnati Reds had lost and a win would virtually assure them of home field for the wild-card playoff game.

Not a good day all around as Liriano gave up four runs and eight hits in five innings to the last-place Chicago Cubs, while throwing 104 pitches. He left after allowing a three-run homer in the sixth to Darnell McDonald, which broke up a tie game and led to the Cubs' 4-2 win today at Wrigley Field.

This is the situation with all three contending teams having three games remaining:

* St. Louis Cardinals are in first place with a three-game lead over the Pirates and four over the Reds. Their magic number is one and with three games coming up at home against the Cubs there will be no catching the Cardinals.

* The Pirates have a one-game lead over the Reds, who they play three times this weekend in Cincinnati. If the Pirates take two of three or sweep, they secure home field for the wild-card playoff game. If they win one of three, they finish in a tie with the Reds. If they lose all three, they will play the wild-card game in Cincinnati.

* The wild-card tie breaker is head-to-head season record. The teams are currently tied at 8-8. If the Reds force a tie for second place, it will be by winning this weekend's series, which will give them the season series and home field for the wild-card playoff game.

Liriano has been designated as the pitcher to start the first postseason game. But manager Clint Hurdle might be reconsidering that decision in light of the recent performances of Liriano. His monthly ERAs read like this: May, 2.35; June 2.15; July 2.02, August 3.62; September 5.14. His September ERA was driven up by a Sept. 4 start in which he allowed seven runs in three innings. In his next three starts, he allowed five runs in 20 innings, a good ERA of 2.25.

Liriano was in trouble in almost every inning today before the Cubs caught up with him in a big way in the sixth when Donnie Murphy singled and Junior Lake walked in front of McDonald's home run.

But Hurdle has few options. With every game against the Reds likely critical for home field, he will use A.J. Burnett, Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. If the Pirates win the first two games, to secure home field, Hurdle has the option of not pitching Cole -- who has a 1.69 ERA in five starts this month -- and save him for the wild-card game.

That would be a serious disrespecting of Liriano, which makes it not a likely option.



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