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Francisco Liriano, Jared Hughes blow big lead again as Pirates lose 5-4

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Francisco Liriano, Jared Hughes and the Pirates blew an early-four run lead Monday and lost 5-4 to the Dodgers, narrowly missing a chance to complete a four-game sweep.

The Pirates scored all their runs in the first inning as Scott Kazmir struggled to throw strikes. Jordy Mercer led off with a walk, then headed to third on a double by Andrew McCutchen (who again mostly looked like the Cutch of old at the plate today). Jung Ho Kang walked to load the bases. Starling Marte singled home a run with an awkward opposite-field single, Sean Rodriguez walked home another, and Erik Kratz added a two-run single up the middle.

And ... that was it, and the Dodgers had plenty of opportunities to come back against Liriano, who never really appeared to be in control except in a second inning in which he notched three straight groundouts. In the third, Liriano allowed a leadoff triple to new Dodger Chris Taylor, who came home on a sacrifice fly. Then, thanks in part to a series of walks, Liriano fell apart in the fifth. Yasiel Puig hit a two-run single, Howie Kendrick got an RBI single of his own after Jared Hughes came in to relieve Liriano, and then A.J. Ellis brought home what would be the winning run on a ground ball that wasn't routine but that Mercer probably should have been able to field. It also didn't help that Puig was at third base in the first place due to a throwing error by Kratz.

Still, Liriano's wounds were mostly self-inflicted, and his final line -- 4.1 innings, three whiffs, five walks -- speaks for itself. He now has allowed at least four runs in each of his last six starts (although that includes some unearned runs against the Cardinals a couple weeks back). Liriano had three straight good seasons with the Bucs before this one and won the most fondly remembered game ever played at PNC Park, but now we're legitimately at a point that suggestions he be moved to the bullpen aren't insane.

Hughes, meanwhile, remains a questionable choice to bail out struggling starters. His line today credits him with 1.2 innings pitched and no runs, and to be fair, he wasn't terrible -- he did get three ground-ball outs and a strikeout, and the Ellis hit wasn't exactly his fault. But as bad as Liriano was, the Pirates did still have a lead Liriano exited. Hughes' pitch to Kendrick, in particular, was a bad one. There isn't much in Hughes' line this year to suggest he's still worthy of pitching in high-leverage situations -- his walk rate is almost twice as high as it was last year and he hasn't even gotten ground balls at the extreme rate he once did. I'm not sure what use Hughes is if he can't be the double-play specialist he used to be, but right now I'm terrified when he enters in those kinds of situations. This isn't the first time something like this has happened, either -- you might remember that Liriano and Hughes combined to blow a 6-1 Bucs lead just last week, against the Giants.

Anyway, the Pirates failed to score after the first. There were some positive signs today, particularly McCutchen's two-hit game. But the loss exposed continued weaknesses in their pitching staff.