As most of the baseball world focused on the chippy Cardinals-Cubs series in Chicago, the Pirates beat the Los Angeles Dodgers 3-2 behind the strong pitching of Francisco Liriano. In so doing, they gained a game on the division-leading Cardinals, held the Cubs at bay by one game for home-field advantage in the Wild Card race, ended a four-game losing streak, and survived their third contest in four days with a Cy Young Award candidate, this time Clayton Kershaw.
After a top of the first in which the Pirates worked Kershaw for 20 pitches, Liriano and the Pirates gave up their obligatory first-inning run, a courtesy they have now extended to the opposition for eight of the past 10 games. Justin Ruggiano led off with a well-placed grounder up the middle, moved to second on a wild pitch, and scored on a single past the first-base bag by Howie Kendrick. Kendrick was erased on a double play off the bat of Adrian Gonzalez, and after doubling, Justin Turner was stranded at second when Corey Seager struck out.
After that, Liriano quickly settled into a groove and retired 16 straight Dodgers over the next five innings, a string of excellence that included five consecutive strikeouts, four of the five on called third strikes.
The Pirates took a 2-1 lead in the third. After Jordy Mercer led off with a bloop single, Liriano made one attempt at a sacrifice bunt and then leveraged his newfound offensive prowess for a single up the middle that put runners on first and second. Gregory Polanco then tried twice to bunt the runners into scoring position before accomplishing the same thing with a swinging-bunt dribbler to first base. Josh Harrison then swung at two breaking pitches from Kershaw out of the strike zone before looking at a third strike down the middle. But Andrew McCutchen followed with a terrific at bat, working the count to 3-2 before depositing a slider up in the zone just inside the line in right field to drive in two runs.
Kershaw was characteristically stingy thereafter, holding the Pirates to two runs with the aid of two pickoffs--Mercer in the fifth and Harrison in the sixth. In the seventh, he walked Francisco Cervelli and Mercer with two outs and raised his pitch count to 96 before retiring the mighty Liriano on a comebacker.
The Dodgers tied the game in the bottom of the seventh. After getting ahead of Liriano 3-1, Gonzalez hit an opposite-field single to left. Alex Guerrero, who had replaced Turner at third base, hit a soft grounder to Mercer that should have been a double play; but Mercer juggled it briefly in his glove and had to settle for a fielder's choice. Seager then drew a walk thanks to a bad call on what should have been strike three, and A.J. Ellis followed with a double, scoring Guererro and putting runners on second and third. Clint Hurdle elected to keep Liriano in the game with a pitch count near 100 and to walk Chris Heisey despite a batting average well below the Mendoza line. The Dodgers brought in rookie Austin Barnes to pinch hit for lefty batter Joc Pederson, Barnes hit a double play ball to Mercer, and the Pirates turned the double play with help from defensive replacement Sean Rodriguez, who jumped to pull down an errant throw by Harrison.
It was a great outing for Liriano: seven innings, five hits, two runs, two walks, and nine strikeouts. And he was rewarded with a win thanks to the bat and glove of Gregory "Daddy Longlegs" Polanco--a monikker bestowed on the right fielder by Vin Scully on the Dodgers broadcast--and the bat of Aramis Ramirez. Against Kershaw, Polanco led off with an opposite-field double, ending Kershaw's evening. Pinch-hitter Neil Walker moved Polanco to third on a grounder to first base off Chris Hatcher. Then after the Dodgers walked McCutchen intentionally, Ramirez hit a decisive double to left that scored Polanco. After an intentional walk to Starling Marte, the Pirates seemed poised to break the game open with the bases loaded and one out, but Rodriguez hit a 3-2 nubber a foot in front of the plate, and while Rodriguez tried to convince the home-plate ump that the ball was foul, Ellis tagged home and threw to first for an inning-ending double play.
With this slimmest of leads, the Pirates bullpen had to nail the game down. Tony Watson came in in the eighth, and after getting Jimmy Rollins to pop up, he was aided on a tremendous running catch by Daddy Longlegs in right field on Ruggiano's deep fly. Mark Melancon then dispatched Gonzalez, pinch-hitter Andre Ethier, and Seager easily in the ninth, earning his franchise-record-setting 47th save.
It was a great win for the team, sorely needed. Onward!