Cook: Liriano bounces back with outstanding outing

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WASHINGTON -- Pirates starter James McDonald was 9-3 with a 2.37 earned run average and 0.97 WHIP at the All-Star break last season.

Pirates starter Francisco Liriano was 9-3 with a 2.00 ERA and 1.19 WHIP at the break this season.

McDonald wasn't sharp in his first start of the second half a year ago, failing to go five innings at Milwaukee and giving up five runs, eight hits and four walks.

Liriano struggled in his first start after the break last week, failing to go five innings at Cincinnati and giving up five runs, five hits and four walks.

McDonald was worse in his second post-break start, rocked at Colorado for six runs, nine hits and four walks in five innings. He quickly fell off the face of the baseball earth, the biggest reason the Pirates collapsed in the second half of the season.

Liriano was ...

Happily, for the Pirates, the comparison ends there.

Liriano was virtually unhittable Wednesday night in a 4-2 win against the Washington Nationals.

"He's a pro. He does this for a living," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said of the way Liriano bounced back from his rough start in Cincinnati.

The Pirates have won four games in a row and are, again, a season-high 21 games over .500 at 60-39. The statistical correction that some expected in the second half from their pitching staff -- especially their starters -- hasn't happened. It doesn't just remain the best staff in baseball with easily the best team ERA (3.06). Liriano pitched his best game of the season Wednesday night, taking a no-hitter into the sixth inning and allowing no runs and just two hits in 72/3 innings. Rookie Gerrit Cole pitched his best game Tuesday night against the Nationals. Charlie Morton pitched his best game Monday night against the Nationals. Jeff Locke pitched his best game Sunday against the Reds.

I can't wait to see what A.J. Burnett does today against the Nationals.

Liriano seemed the most likely to slide after his superb first half. Of course, he still might. His ERA was over 5.00 in each of the past two seasons when he pitched in the American League.

But it's hard to imagine Liriano sinking to anything even remotely close McDonald-like depths after watching him take down the free-falling Nationals, who have lost 11 of their past 13 games. He threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 28 batters he faced. He went to at least three balls on five hitters in the first four innings but became much more efficient as the game went on. He needed just five pitches to get through the fifth inning and seven to make it through the seventh.

"Everything worked the way I wanted," Liriano said. "I felt great out there."

A tough play cost Liriano his no-hit bid with two outs in the sixth inning. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, diving to his left, couldn't quite get a grip on a shot by Anthony Rendon. Alvarez often makes that play, but it correctly was called a single.

Liriano shrugged it off.

"I think it was too early in the game [to be thinking about a no-hitter]."

The Nationals' only other hit off of Liriano was a line single to center field by Steve Lombardozzi leading off the eighth.

Liriano knows what it takes to pitch a no-hitter. He got one against the Chicago White Sox while pitching for the Minnesota Twins early in the 2011 season. He hardly was sharp that night, walking six.

Liriano was a much different pitcher then. He took a 1-4 record and 9.13 ERA into that start in Chicago. This season, he pitched brilliantly after joining the Pirates rotation May 11. At least, he did until that start Friday night in Cincinnati.

"I just tried to stay back a little and not try to do too much," Liriano said of his adjustments from that start.

Liriano needed to be great because Washington starter Stephen Strasburg also was nearly unhittable, as he usually is against the Pirates. Strasburg struck out 12 and gave up just a run and two hits in eight innings, although the first hit he allowed left the park off of the bat of Alvarez. Somehow, Alvarez muscled it out against the wind to right-center field. Hurdle said the home run "gave me goose bumps."

It also gave Liriano a lead to work with. He did the rest, at least until turning over the 1-0 lead to the terrific bullpen.

"I'm very happy what I'm doing right now," Liriano said. "I'm just going to continue doing it."

Correction?

What correction?

mobilehome - pirates - roncook

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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