Cook: Liriano has place in Pirates history

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I'm sure Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente, Steve Blass, Bill Mazeroski and the Pirates' many other postseason baseball stars won't mind moving over just a bit. There is plenty of room on their pedestal. They gladly will find a nice, comfortable spot for Francisco Liriano, the franchise's latest October point of light.

"Are you kidding me? Of course, he's welcome," Blass said. "I've been dusting it off for 20 years, waiting for someone to come along."

Did Liriano shine bright Tuesday night on the North Shore or what?

If you listen closely, you probably still can hear the roar in Liriano's honor from the throbbing PNC Park crowd that partied as if it were watching Pittsburgh's first postseason baseball game in 20 years, 11 months and 20 days.

Which, of course, it was.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle wisely gave the ball to Liriano against the Cincinnati Reds in the National League wild-card game, and Liriano didn't disappoint. He pitched three perfect innings at the start and allowed the Reds just one run and four hits through seven in the Pirates' 6-2 win. Now, it's on to St. Louis and the National League Divisional Series against the Cardinals.

I could be wrong, but I'm thinking Pirates fans could learn to like this postseason baseball.

Certainly, Liriano and the Pirates are loving it.

Do you think they really needed a plane to get to St. Louis early this morning?

Baseball careers are made in postseason games. Liriano is no kid. He has been around the big leagues for a long time and has had his share of wonderful regular-season moments, including this season when he was the Pirates' best, most consistent starter. But Liriano long will be remembered for what he did on this gorgeous October night along the Allegheny River. He wasn't just pitching against a quality opponent with everything on the line. He was pitching against Reds starter Johnny Cueto, a fellow Dominican, with just about every pair of eyeballs in their country locked on the game. Cueto talked about the overwhelming significance of the game there, especially the impact on kids looking up to their baseball heroes.

That's pressure.

Liriano stared it down.

All of it.

"If you haven't watched us play all year and just saw this game, that's how he's pitched all season for us," closer Jason Grilli said.

"He's so much fun to play behind," shortstop Clint Barmes added. "He takes the ball and goes at 'em."

In many ways, this Liriano gem was expected. He had been virtually unbeatable at PNC Park this season, going 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts. The Reds also came in scuffling. They had scored three runs or fewer in seven of their previous eight games. Beyond that, their top left-handed hitters -- Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo -- long had struggled against Liriano. They were a combined 8 for 52 against him coming in. They were 1 for 8 with four strikeouts against him Tuesday night.

But don't let the favorable numbers cheapen Liriano's strong work in any way. The stage was big and bright -- the crowd of 40,487 was the biggest in PNC Park history and the atmosphere was reminiscent of a Steelers or Penguins playoff game, every bit as electric -- but it wasn't too big or too bright for him.

"There's never a time I don't like Frank on the mound," Hurdle said.

Liriano had plenty of help, of course. If the Pirates proved anything during this magical season, it's that they are a team. Marlon Byrd and Russell Martin took care of the offense early with second-inning home runs off Cueto that had the ballpark rocking. The defense was flawless, especially Barmes, who had three early assists, and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who turned a nice double play to end the fifth inning.

Liriano took care of just about all of the rest.

After the Pirates added two runs in the fourth -- one on an RBI double by Neil Walker, just his second extra-base hit as a right-handed hitter in 81 at-bats this season -- to take a 5-1 lead, it was only a matter of time until they started revving up the chartered jet to St. Louis. Liriano got the double-play ball to get out of the fifth. He struck out Votto and got Brandon Phillips to ground out weakly to second base with a runner on second in the sixth. He gave up a double to Todd Frazier in the seventh but got Zack Cozart to bounce out to Barmes at shortstop and, with everyone in the seats standing and cheering, got Ryan Hanigan to ground out to Alvarez at third.

It was Liriano's 90th and final pitch.

Who said Pittsburgh baseball fans aren't smart?

Those fans showed great intelligence when Travis Snider pinch-hit for Liriano in the bottom of the seventh. Almost immediately, a "Frank-ie! Frank-ie!" chant broke out. That was quickly trumped by a "Lir-i-an-o" melody.

I'm not sure the beautiful park has ever sounded better, so alive. Playoff games in domes have been louder. But even longtime baseball watchers couldn't come up with an outdoor park that matched the incredible scene Tuesday.

Here's hoping the kids in the Dominican Republic were watching.

They couldn't have a better baseball role model than Liriano.

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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