Francisco Liriano dominated the Cubs, pitching seven scoreless innings to lead the Pirates to a 1-0 victory over Jeff Samardzija and the Cubs.
The Pirates got to Samardzija in the first, which seemed like a good sign given how much they'd struggled against him on Opening Day. Andrew McCutchen pulled a two-out double down the line, and Garrett Jones brought him home with a single to right-center.
Liriano ran into trouble in the third, when Cody Ransom singled, Darwin Barney walked, and Samardzija reached on a great bunt that caused Liriano to make a hurried, off-target throw to first. But Liriano got out of it with a fielder's choice, a strikeout, and a fly ball to right. Dave Manel points out how huge that is -- the run expectancy with the bases juiced and no outs is 2.24, but the Bucs got out of it without allowing a run.
"They missed a big one in the third inning," Clint Hurdle said. "That was the difference."
After that came strikeouts -- lots and lots of them for both sides. Samardzija and Liriano both left after seven, having allowed one walk apiece. Samardzija had eight strikeouts, Liriano nine.
"When [Liriano] gets ahead with his fastball ... the other stuff plays up dramatically," Hurdle said. "When he's had fastball command, those are the games that are electric for him."
Liriano got a big boost from Pedro Alvarez, who made three terrific plays on defense.
The Pirates brought in Tony Watson in the eighth. Part of that, I'm sure, was that Jason Grilli wasn't available, and Hurdle seems to think of Watson as the third guy in the 'pen behind Grilli and Mark Melancon. Watson doesn't deserve that status, clearly.
But if the Bucs weren't going to keep Liriano out there -- he'd only thrown 91 pitches -- Watson made at least some sense, because two of the three Cubs batters coming up after their pinch-hitter were lefties and Justin Wilson threw 24 pitches last night. Their best pinch-hit options were lefties as well. (Also, I'm not sure Watson deserves to be vilified the way he has been on Twitter -- his peripherals suggest he's pretty much the same pitcher he was last year, which is to say a decent, although admittedly not great, bullpen lefty.) Anyway, Watson got through the inning, striking out the Cubs' best hitter, Anthony Rizzo, to end it.
"Left-handed pinch-hitter, left-handed hitter leading off the top of the inning, [Starlin] Castro has not hit left-handed pitching this year, he's a reverse-split guy in his career, Rizzo's next. That's why we went to Watson." Hurdle said.
Some fans felt that the Pirates should have kept Liriano, who had only thrown 91 pitches, in the game instead of going with Watson. After the game, Hurdle said that Liriano told him he was "done." Liriano himself described it somewhat differently, but admitted to being a bit tired after the seventh inning, and said that the quality of the Pirates' bullpen gave him faith that the Bucs would maintain their lead.
"The bullpen's been great so far, so we can not take a chance right there," said Liriano.
Mark Melancon came on to close in Grilli's place. Melancon put two men on, the first coming when a strikeout got away from Russell Martin. But Melancon stranded them both to end it.
Liriano, obviously, has been spectacular in three starts this year, posting 25 strikeouts and six walks and allowing just three earned runs in his first 18 innings. Liriano appeared to be an upside play when the Pirates signed him, and so far, he's shown nothing but upside.
The Pirates are now 10 games above .500.