When the non-waiver trading period came and went without a move from the Pirates, general manager Neal Huntington defended the team's inaction by pointing to the players he already had.
Some — such as Starling Marte, at the time, and Gerrit Cole — were coming back from injuries. Others, Huntington said, were "starting to put some things together."
Francisco Liriano, one of the latter, has thus far made good on the front office's hope, but the offense left him helpless in a 2-1 defeat Saturday night against the San Diego Padres at PNC Park.
Liriano allowed two runs in the first inning, then stifled the Padres for the next six.
The absence of Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker contributed to Pirates' low-caliber offense, though Walker pinch-hit Saturday night and could return today.
Liriano (3-8) finished seven innings and allowed two runs, lowering his ERA in his past five starts to 1.69. In 32 innings in those starts, opposing hitters have 18 hits and 33 strikeouts.
"He's done it before," manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's not like all of a sudden, we're seeing something we haven't seen before. He's finding his rhythm, he's got confidence out there, repeating the delivery."
Liriano left the clubhouse without speaking to reporters.
After Liriano's final start before the All-Star break — his first start off the disabled list after spending a month there because of an oblique strain — his ERA was 4.72. Since that start July 13, he has lowered it to 3.82.
"I do think after he came off the DL, it was maybe the first time all year, the best health that he's been able to take out on the mound," Hurdle said.
Liriano allowed the first five batters to reach base in the first and loaded the bases without recording an out. Everth Cabrera reached on an infield single, stole second and went to third on Yangervis Solarte's hit. Liriano hit Tommy Medica to load the bases and Jedd Gyorko singled home a run.
Third baseman Jayson Nix threw home on Chris Nelson's grounder to prevent another run. Yasmani Grandal's fly ball to right field scored a second run, but Jordy Mercer cut off Gregory Polanco's throw and caught Nelson between first and second to end the inning.
"Well-placed ground balls. The hit batter didn't help," Hurdle said. "That was the one misstep."
Liriano pitched 5⅔ perfect innings after a rough first, ending the streak with a two-out walk to Grandal in the seventh. In that span, he allowed one ball out of the infield, a harmless fly to right, while recording 11 ground-ball outs and striking out four.
Jared Hughes loaded the bases in the eighth, an inning in which Medica was hit by another pitch — this time in the head — but Hughes kept the Padres from scoring. Medica stayed on his feet but left the game.
Walker, who has missed time because of a tight lower back, struck out swinging as a pinch-hitter in the ninth.
"It felt OK," he said. "Best it's felt since I started feeling symptoms."
Walker said he hoped to return to the lineup today.
"I probably could have played [Saturday] but with the night-day game, figured I might as well just give it an extra little bit of time," he said.
Padres starter Eric Stults (5-13), a 34-year-old left-hander, relies on a fastball that struggles to touch 90 mph, a changeup that hovers around 80 and a curveball that often crosses the plate in the 60s.
Against that arsenal, the Pirates scratched one run and seven hits in 6⅓ innings. Russell Martin's RBI single in the first scored the Pirates' only run.
Mercer singled and Martin doubled in the eighth, putting two men in scoring position, but Ike Davis, Marte and Gregory stranded them there.
"We weren't able to make good outs let alone get a hit," Hurdle said.
Even though Liriano held fast with no margin for error, as he has for five starts, his offense could not.
Bill Brink: email@example.com and on Twitter @BrinkPG.
First Published August 9, 2014 10:13 PM