Ron Cook: Pirates loss spoils stellar start by Francisco Liriano

Some will blame Pirates reliever Jared Hughes. He inherited a 1-0 lead in the seventh inning Monday night at PNC Park and promptly turned it into what became a hurtful 3-2 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals, one of the teams the Pirates are chasing furiously for a playoff spot. It was the third time in 11 days the bullpen blew a late lead. That's crushing. This kind of defeat is crushing.

Others will blame manager Clint Hurdle. He stuck with Hughes against left-handed pinch-hitter Jon Jay with runners on first and second and two outs instead of turning to left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. Jay hit Hughes' first pitch for a run-scoring single to left-center, tying it, 1-1. It wasn't until after Matt Holliday's two-run single off Hughes that Wilson came on. Wilson quickly got out of the seventh and pitched a perfect eighth. It was nice work by Wilson, but a little late.

The one thing everyone who watched the game can agree on is that starter Francisco Liriano deserved so much better than a no-decision. He was outstanding for six-plus innings, giving up just four hits and three walks. His fastball was terrific, setting up his changeup and slider. He was in control most of the night. There were a few positives to come out of the loss, notably Pedro Alvarez's third home run in three games and Andrew McCutchen's third in four, but the biggest plus, by far, was Liriano's performance, which came after one of his worst starts of the season against the Atlanta Braves Tuesday night. The Pirates are going to need him to be great in his final six starts down the stretch to have any chance of getting the National League's second wild-card spot and sneaking into the playoffs for the second consecutive season.

"He's very important to our staff," Hurdle said. "We know what he's capable of. We've seen him pitch in the second half. That one game [against the Braves], for me, was an outlier. He bounced back today and pitched very effectively. He's a big part. We're going to need him finishing up, strong."

Hurdle went to Hughes after Liriano gave up a leadoff infield single to Kolten Wong in the seventh. Liriano had thrown just 91 pitches, but Hurdle was troubled by the double and two walks he gave up in the sixth before getting Oscar Taveras to bounce into an inning-ending 5-2-3 double play.

"My job is to take 'em out before they give up runs," Hurdle said. "When you do bring in someone and they give up runs, that's on me."

Hughes was more than willing to take the blame. He quickly picked Wong off first base, but gave up a single to Tony Cruz on an 0-2 pitch. That was the at-bat that troubled Hurdle most. Pitcher John Lackey sacrificed Cruz to second base and, after a walk to Matt Carpenter, Jay delivered his hit.

"I know the matchups, I know the numbers," Hurdle said, explaining why he stuck with Hughes instead of going with Wilson.

Jay came in hitting .400 against left-handers, for one thing. Hurdle had other numbers to back his decision. Hughes had held left-handed hitters to a .221 average. Left-handers were hitting .299 against Wilson.

"And Hughes, gosh, he's been so good." Hurdle said. "This was just a night when he wasn't able to get the ball where he wanted to get it."

That wasn't a problem for Liriano for most of the game. This was his seventh superb start in eight since the All-Star break. In those seven starts, his ERA was 1.64. The outlier was that start against the Braves when he allowed nine runs in four-plus innings.

"I thought it was a real, real good game, a real good effort, solid," Hurdle said of Liriano's work against the Cardinals.

It's hard to believe Liriano is just 3-10 despite lowering his ERA to 3.98 with his impressive second-half pitching. Last season, he was the Pirates' best starter with a 16-8 record and 3.02 ERA. Hurdle gave him the ball in the franchise's most important game since 1992 -- the wild-card game against the Cincinnati Reds at PNC Park. Of course, Liriano won it.

Liriano and Gerrit Cole -- the starter tonight -- have to lead the way down the stretch. If they don't pitch well and have a big September, the Pirates will have no chance of grabbing that playoff slot.

"I'm looking forward to watching Cole pitch," Hurdle said.

It will be Cole's second start since coming off the disabled list. He pitched seven good innings against the Braves Wednesday night.

Know this:

Hurdle will take his chances tonight if Cole gives him what Liriano did.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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