The Pirates needed Francisco Liriano to be a stopper, and he came up huge. (Photo Credit: David Hague)
Last night’s loss was a tough loss. The Pirates were coming off a three game sweep against the Colorado Rockies. They had a three game lead in the NL Central over the St. Louis Cardinals, with a big three game series against the Cardinals coming up. Taking the first game against St. Louis would send a message. The Pirates came close to sending that message, up until a rare error by Starling Marte sent the game to extra innings. The Pirates had opportunities to close it out, but couldn’t come up with the win, and eventually lost in the 14th inning, sending their losing streak to four games.
It wasn’t the first time the Pirates had a four game losing streak. In fact, it was the third time this year, and they’ve never extended a losing streak beyond that. They certainly couldn’t afford to start now against the Cardinals. With the Wild Card round reduced to a one game play-in, winning the division is so important. These games against the Cardinals are extremely important for that purpose. The Pirates needed a shift in momentum back in their direction. They needed a stopper.
Fortunately it was Francisco Liriano’s day to pitch.
The History of the Stopper
Liriano has been called on before in these types of big roles. Prior to tonight’s game, he had four appearances where he was called upon to prevent a losing streak. Three of those games followed the Pirates losing 2+ games in a row. The other game followed three losses in the last four games. And each time he came up huge.
Friday, June 7th
The Pirates were coming off three losses in a row, and five of their last six to start the month of June. Liriano took the mound against the Chicago Cubs on the road, which isn’t the most difficult opponent this year, but can be a difficult stadium. He stepped up with seven shutout innings, allowing two hits, five walks, and striking out eight. The Pirates won 2-0. That stopped the losing streak, and the Pirates went on to go 7-5 over the next few weeks before starting a nine game winning streak.
Wednesday, July 10th
The previous Friday, Liriano beat the Cubs on the road once again. After that win, the Pirates dropped four straight games for the second time this season, dropping them out of first place in the NL Central and sparking the first fears of a collapse. Or the second or third. It’s hard to keep track. Liriano took the mound against the Oakland Athletics at home, after the Pirates lost two games in a row to the A’s. Once again, he came up big, throwing seven shutout innings, allowing four hits, one walk, and six strikeouts to lead the Pirates to a 5-0 win.
Monday, July 29th
It was only a few weeks ago that the Pirates were in a similar situation to the one they’re in now. They were coming off a few losses to bad teams, and facing the Cardinals in a huge five game series at home. Heading into the series the Pirates lost three of their last four games, including two of three to the Marlins. Liriano took the mound in game one against the Cardinals, and once again he delivered. The lefty threw seven innings, giving up one run on four hits and two walks, with eight strikeouts. The Pirates won 9-2, took three of the next four games from St. Louis, and took control of the NL Central.
Saturday, August 3rd
The Pirates lost the last game of the St. Louis series, then the first game of a series with the Colorado Rockies. A two game losing streak isn’t much, but once again winning the division is extremely important, and the Pirates only had a half game lead. So once again, it was up to Liriano to get the team trending in the right direction. You can probably guess what happened. Seven shutout innings, two hits, five walks, and six strikeouts led the Pirates to a 5-2 victory. That started a five game winning streak, which combined with the continued losing by the Cardinals gave the Pirates a four game lead.
The Biggest Stop of All
The Pirates aren’t going to collapse this year. They’re going to make the playoffs. But whether they make the playoffs as a Wild Card team or the NL Central champs is up in the air. Once again, with a one game Wild Card round, winning the division is the priority. So losing four games in a row with two more to play against St. Louis, and a two game lead in the Central was a huge moment. The Pirates needed Liriano more than ever. And he delivered his best performance tonight.
The lefty threw a complete game, giving up just one run in the ninth inning, and leading the Pirates to a 5-1 win over the Cardinals with just 94 pitches. He got help from Pedro Alvarez, who hit his 29th homer of the year, and Garrett Jones, who hit his 11th homer of the year. Both homers came in the second inning. The Pirates put up three more runs in the fourth inning, led by the rare hits with runners in scoring position by Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte.
That was more than enough for Liriano, who was extremely efficient. His pitches by inning:
Only one inning with more than 12 pitches. No innings with more than 14 pitches. Three of the innings were eight pitches or less, including some huge quick outs in the seventh and eighth that secured the fact that Liriano would go the complete game. Not only did Liriano come through by stopping the losing streak, he went above and beyond this time. He went a complete game, saving the bullpen, which had been taxed last night. He did that on a night where the offense got to Shelby Miller early, forcing the Cardinals to go to their bullpen for three innings to end the game.
It’s hard to judge momentum. You don’t know what is going through the minds of the players. You don’t know how one club will react to a loss, or how another club will perform after an uplifting win. But on the surface it’s easy to see how this could be a huge momentum boost for the Pirates. Aside from the dominant performance by Liriano, everything was going right. The Pirates were getting the defensive plays, after the defense let them down last night in the late innings. The Cardinals were looking poor defensively, with the always entertaining Matt Holliday experience in left field. The Pirates were the ones hitting in runners from scoring position, going 2-for-5. The Cardinals? They were 0-for-1 with runners in scoring position.
Tomorrow the Pirates have A.J. Burnett on the mound. Ace number two. The Cardinals have a good pitcher as well in Lance Lynn, although Lynn hasn’t exactly been dominant lately, with a 4.32 ERA since the start of July. The Pirates needed Liriano to pick them back up, and that’s what he did. Burnett has the chance to match Liriano’s performance, and try to build on the NL Central lead over St. Louis.