Bob Smizik: Liriano looking sharp!

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Observations on the Pirates and their 6-1 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers Wednesday night at PNC Park:

• Francisco Liriano keeps getting better with each start since coming off the disabled list. He has not returned to his 2013 level, when he was among the best starters in MLB, but he's getting close. It remains to be determined if he can fully regain his 2013 form, but there’s reason to believe he can. As the baseball season moves toward its stretch run, the Pirates might have an ace at the top of their rotation.

• Gerrit Cole is tentatively scheduled to have a rehab start at Indianapolis on Monday. If all goes well, he could be back in the rotation late next week.

• Not to be a party pooper, but with two more hits, an RBI, a walk and with an on-base percentage of .407, third best in the National League, Russell Martin is pricing himself out of Pittsburgh.

• With Starling Marte on the seven-day disabled list with concussion symptoms, the Pirates have an interesting situation in left field. A week ago, there’d be no question that the majority of playing time would go to Josh Harrison. But with Harrison possibly being needed at third base and with Travis Snider having four hits in seven at-bats in starts the past two games, including a home run last night, Clint Hurdle’s decision is not so clear.

• Further confusing the outfield situation is the fact the Pirates might face left-handed pitchers in their next four games -- Brett Anderson, Tyler Matzek and Franklin Morales in Colorado and Madison Bumgarner in San Francisco. Starting right fielder Gregory Polanco is batting .140 (6-for-43) with a .405 OPS against left-handers. As the roster is presently constituted, the Pirates will have to choose between Polanco and Snider, who is batting .308 (4-for-13) against lefties this season but .228 lifetime.

• For what it’s worth (not much), the Pirates are 5-0 in games Snider has started in left field.

• Pirates vs. left-handed pitching (ranked by OPS): Chris Stewart 10-22, .455, 1.091; Andrew McCutchen, 16-62, .258, .898; Gaby Sanchez 20-73, .274, .839; Neil Walker 19-64, .297, .750; Jordy Mercer 18-63, .286, .742; Marte 12-50, .241, .680; Harrison 17-60, .283, .668; Snider 4-13, .308, .615; Pedro Alvarez 13-70, .186, .531; Martin 6-40, .150, .464; Michael Martinez 1-6, .167, .452; Polanco 6-43, .140, .405; Ike Davis 3-20, .150, .340.

* The Pirates have a .664 OPS against left-handers this year, which is 14th in the National League. Last year that number was .735, second in the league. Reason for the decline? Last year McCutchen’s OPS was 1.130 against lefties, Mercer’s was 1.153 and Marte’s was 1.030.

• Jared Hughes pitched a scoreless ninth. In 10 appearances this month (11 2/3 innings) he has a 0.77 ERA.

• Going into games of Wednesday, Pirates batters had been hit with 58 pitches this season, tops in the National League and five more than runner-up St. Louis. Pirates pitchers also led the league in hitting batters with 56, which was a whopping 16 more than runner-up Philadelphia.

• The celebrated Pirates farm system could send to Pittsburgh nothing better than third baseman Brent Morel, who delivered a pinch-hit single, to replace Marte. Morel was batting .246, six points lower than Michael Martinez, with a .661 OPS at Indianapolis. He has three home runs in 260 at-bats.

• Thirteen of the Pirates’ next 16 games will be played against teams with losing records -- Colorado, Arizona, Miami and San Diego. Also included in that schedule are three games with first-place San Francisco. Beginning Aug. 11, the Pirates play 22 consecutive games almost exclusively against the better teams in MLB -- Detroit, Washington, Atlanta, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

• With another crowd in excess of 30,000 last night and with the Pirates 17th in MLB in attendance -- up from 27th in 2010 -- and with the retention of Martin so important, it’s a good time to resurrect this infamous quote from Pirates President Frank Coonelly made in February 2011.

Asked about increasing payroll in the immediate future, Coonelly said: ''Today, no, but we will be able to support that payroll very soon if our fans believe that we now have a group of players in Pittsburgh and on its way here in the near future that is competitive. We need to take a meaningful step forward in terms of attendance to reach that payroll number while continuing to invest heavily in our future, but I am convinced that the attendance will move quickly once we convince our fans that we are on the right track.’’

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