Bob Smizik: Liriano's start against Rockies encouraging

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Four items of interest coming out of the Pirates’ 4-2 win over Colorado last night.

* The return of Francisco Liriano remains a work in progress but the most recent signs are encouraging. Liriano worked the first five innings against the Rockies before another sellout crowd at PNC Park and while he didn’t look like the Liriano of 2013, he certainly looked better than the Liriano of earlier this week.

He allowed three hits and one run, which was unearned. He struck out seven and walked three. It took him 96 pitches to navigate those five innings, so, obviously, his control is not where it needs to be. But he missed a lot of bats and it was a nice step forward from the awful start he made Sunday against Cincinnati when he walked six and threw 94 pitches in four innings.

Neither the Reds, without Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, nor the Rockies, 13th in runs on the road in the National League, were a particularly daunting challenge. Liriano will be more severely tested Wednesday when the Pirates play the Los Angeles Dodgers, third in the National League in runs and first in runs on the road.

* You’ve read it here and you’ve read it elsewhere: The Pirates need a closer. And maybe not.

There will be other closers available -- Joakim Soria of Texas, for one -- and people will be clamoring for the Pirates to make a deal. But a trade for a closer isn't likely to happen. For one, the Pirates probably are not going to pay the price in prospects teams will be demanding for their closer. For another, Mark Melancon might be good enough.

Melancon picked up his 17th save last night by pitching a scoreless ninth inning. In doing so, he lowered his WHIP (walks and hits per inning) to 0.91 and his ERA to 2.32. In all of their seasons with the Pirates, neither Jason Grilli nor Joel Hanrahan ever posted a WHIP below 1.00. Melancon’s WHIP last season was 0.96.

This doesn’t mean the Pirates don’t need bullpen help. They could use another experienced arm or two. But Melancon in the ninth and Tony Watson in the eighth might be good enough.

* The errant throwing arm of Pedro Alvarez continues to be a problem that won’t go away. Alvarez’s throw in the sixth inning last night on Willin Rosario’s infield grounder was at least in the vicinity of first base, unlike some of his other recent errors. But it was wide enough to pull Gaby Sanchez off the base and give the Rockies life with two outs. Sure enough, Charlie Culberson and DJ LeMahieu followed with singles off Jared Hughes to score Rosario and give the Rockies a 2-1 lead.

Since this is a mental, as opposed to physical, issue with Alvarez, the more often it happens, the more often it is likely to happen again. Indeed, the bad throws seems to be coming with greater frequency.

There appears to be no easy solution. Manager Clint Hurdle has taken to removing Alvarez from the lineup late in the game but he’s shown no sign of removing him from the lineup.

* The Pirates bench, which has been much better than expected this season, played a large role in producing this victory. After tying the game in the seventh, when Starling Marte was hit in the batting helmet with the bases load, the Pirates scored twice in the eighth. Pinch-hitter Travis Snider drove in the first run with a double and Josh Harrison, when entered the game as a pinch-hitter in the seventh and was safe on an error, brought home the second with a sacrifice fly.


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