Francisco Liriano helped the Pirates' 2016 season get off to a great start, dominating the Cardinals for six innings as the Bucs cruised to a 4-1 win over one of their most annoying division rivals.
Liriano was how he often is when he's good -- his control sometimes got him into a bit of trouble, but in the end, he got too many swings and misses for that to matter. From the end of the first inning through the first out of the third, Liriano got five straight whiffs. The Cardinals started a righty-heavy lineup, but Liriano's slider and changeup were still effective against them, and then he was downright dominant against lefty Matt Adams, who had to enter the game when Tommy Pham got hurt early on. Liriano allowed five walks and had to pitch his way out of jams in the third, fourth and sixth, but the Cardinals managed just three hits, all singles, against him, and he struck out 10.
Liriano also made a rare contribution with his bat, notching the Pirates' first RBI of the season. Gregory Polanco led off the second with a line-drive double to right, then moved up on Josh Harrison's groundout. Jordy Mercer -- who wasn't going to get anything to hit -- walked, and Liriano grounded a single to right to bring Polanco home. John Jaso, making his Pirates debut, then singled to center to put the Bucs up by two. (You'll note here that the Pirates cashed in two runners in scoring position. Maybe this season the Cardinals aren't going to be as miraculously effective in those situations as they were last year.)
The Pirates tacked on another run in the sixth. Francisco Cervelli made up for an earlier throwing error by hitting a triple that Matt Holliday played awkwardly in left, and Polanco walked. Harrison then hit a fly ball to center and Cervelli tagged up to score, although Polanco tried to get to second and got thrown out by Randal Grichuk (well, arguably -- the play got reviewed, and I still couldn't tell whether Polanco was safe or not after watching it from several angles).
Tony Watson took over in the seventh and gave Cardinals hitters just as hard a time as Liriano had. First he whiffed Jeremy Hazelbaker, a lefty outfielder making his big-league debut under unfortunate circumstances. Then he got lefty Matt Carpenter to fly out, and then up came lefty Adams, who whiffed. Watson can be effective against righties, too, of course, but give Clint Hurdle credit for seeing an opportunity to let Watson pitch against a bunch of lefties, instead of just plugging him into the eighth inning as usual.
Newcomer Neftali Feliz then pitched a 1-2-3 eighth in his Pirates debut, getting some help on a nice play from another newcomer, David Freese. It was, on the whole, a nice day for the the Bucs' new players. Jaso and Freese both had good days defensively and had three hits between them, and Feliz had a strong first outing.
Even when things didn't go quite right for the Pirates today, they didn't go badly. Cervelli and Polanco started the eighth with two singles, but after Harrison's sac bunt (already a questionable decision), Cervelli ended up getting thrown out between third and home when Jordy Mercer failed to get his own bunt down. Even then, though, Mercer ended up doubling Polanco home to put the Pirates up 4-0.
It wasn't a save situation anymore, but Mark Melancon came on to pitch the ninth anyway and was the only Pirates pitcher who wasn't successful. He put the first two runners on, and then, after getting a groundout from Jedd Gyorko and striking out Brandon Moss, gave up a single to Carpenter on an eight-pitch at-bat to put the Cardinals on the board. Melancon was only throwing in the 89-90 MPH range; I'm mostly done worrying about the guy, but hopefully his April will go better than last year's did. Anyway, he did get Adams to end the game with no further damage.
Ninth inning aside, Pirates pitchers were the stars this afternoon. They recorded 14 strikeouts, and Liriano looked like every bit the dominant force he's frequently been in the past. As beginnings of seasons go, this was an awfully good one.