One of the biggest questions facing the Pirates heading down the stretch is whether or not they had an ace to lead their pitching staff.
That question might have been answered Wednesday night when Francisco Liriano put together a brilliant outing against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Liriano (2-7), expected to be the ace this season but hampered instead by injury and inconsistency, showed how dominant he can be when he pitched seven innings while giving up one run and four hits to lead the Pirates to a 6-1 win in front of a crowd of 30,785 at PNC Park.
This was the second good outing in a row for Liriano. He went five innings and gave up three hits and a run in the Pirates’ 4-2 win against Colorado Friday night at PNC Park.
“I had better command than I did in my last start, I threw more strikes,” Liriano said. “I was getting ahead in my count better than my last start, so everything is coming together. I just have to keep working and work on getting ahead of hitters.
“Everything was way better than last start, and I wasn’t trying to do too much and wasn’t trying to overthrow. I need to keep working location wise and move forward.”
This was also Liriano’s third start after missing 19 games while on the disabled list with a strained oblique.
Liriano struggled in his first start back against the Cincinnati Reds July 13 but has gotten stronger each start since. That is important as the Pirates try to challenge the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central Division title.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said he understands people believe each staff should have an ace, but he noted the Pirates have done well despite not having one. He also thinks that bodes well for them down the stretch, especially if Liriano gets hot.
“He is getting into a little bit of a groove, the overall command is coming back,” Hurdle said of Liriano. “The first time back, it was 95 pitches in four innings, now it is 95 pitches in seven innings. I see his confidence building, the rhythm and the pace is better.
“You’d always like for somebody [to emerge as the ace], but look at where we have come from and where we are and we haven’t had that guy. We have some guys who are getting deep in games with more consistency and that is helping — I’d like for them all to get hot at once.”
Wednesday night marked the fifth win in six games since the All-Star break for the Pirates, who improved to a season-high seven games over .500 at 54-47.
Despite the win, the Pirates remained 2½ games behind first-place Milwaukee in the Central as the Brewers beat the Reds, 5-1, earlier in the day.
The road to first will be easier if the Pirates continue to get the kind of pitching they got from Liriano Wednesday and get off to fast starts offensively like they did in this game.
In fact, the Pirates went right to work from the first pitch against Dodgers starter Dan Haren, when Gregory Polanco and Travis Snider led off the first with singles.
Andrew McCutchen lined out to third, but Haren walked Neil Walker to load the bases before Russell Martin’s walk scored Polanco to give the Pirates a 1-0 lead.
Snider scored on Ike Davis’ sacrifice fly to left and the Pirates, who finished with nine hits, took a 4-0 lead on Josh Harrison’s two-run double.
Snider, 2 for 3 with an RBI and three runs scored, put the Pirates ahead, 5-0, in the second with a monster 431-foot solo homer that nearly flew into the Allegheny River.
That was all the help Liriano would need as he shook off some early control problems.
“I have always liked [Liriano’s] stuff and, for him, everything works off the fastball,” said Martin, who had two hits. “If he is able to get his fastball for strikes, it makes all his pitches that much better. Inconsistency with his fastball is kind of where he would get into trouble.
“He is still not exactly as dominant as he was last year, but he is getting better every time out, he is getting back there as he gets a better feel, and we are heading in the right direction.”
Liriano began his outing by issuing walks to two of the first three batters he faced before he settled in and struck out Scott Van Slyke and got Juan Uribe to fly out to right.
Liriano, who, at one point retired 10 batters in a row, took a no-hitter and a 5-0 lead into the fifth, but Miguel Rojas broke it up with a one-out double.
Rojas was doubled off second when shortstop Jordy Mercer made a spectacular leaping grab of Drew Butera’s liner.
The Dodgers (56-47) broke through for a run against Liriano in the sixth, when pinch-hitter Justin Turner singled and took third on Dee Gordon’s double.
Turner scored on Matt Kemp’s groundout, but Adrian Gonzalez flied to center and Van Slyke struck out looking to end the inning.
Haren (8-8) lasted five innings and gave up five runs, four hits and three walks. He struck out six.
The Pirates added a sixth run in the seventh when Andrew McCutchen doubled home Snider for his 63rd RBI.
Paul Zeise: email@example.com, 412-263-1720 and Twitter: @paulzeise First Published July 23, 2014 10:02 PM