Slider. Changeup. Slider. Slider. Slider. Slider. Slider. Changeup. Changeup. Slider. Changeup. Slider. Slider. Slider. Changeup. Slider. Slider. Fastball! Slider.
Those were the pitches Francisco Liriano threw to get Cubs batters to swing and miss en route to nine strikeouts in the Pirates’ 1-0 win over the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday. Liriano gave up only one hit in his seven innings of work. Those 19 whiffs demonstrated Liriano’s dominance of the Cubs (18-27) this night, all started by getting an above-average (for him) level of first-pitch strikes.
“Pitching ahead is making it a lot easier for me,” Liriano said. “Getting ahead with the fastball, getting ahead with the slider and mixing all my pitches.”
He tossed in strikes to start the at-bats for 15 of his 26 batters, more than half of those strikes on off-speed pitches. Liriano stayed in the zone well, allowing just one walk, and saw the bottom drop out on many a slider.
“I got pretty good location with it. Everything was down in the zone,” Liriano said. “That’s what I wanted to do.”
Liriano needed every strikeout and scoreless frame he could get, as he received little help from the Pirates’ offense (28-18), who went 1-for-10 with runners on base. The game’s lone run, and hit with a runner aboard, came in the Bottom 1st off Cubs’ starter Jeff Samardzija. Andrew McCutchen roped a two-out double down the left-field line. One pitch later, Garrett Jones lined a fastball into right-center field to score McCutchen.
“I don’t want to say I’m locked in, but I feel good,” McCutchen said. “As long as I feel good and I’m squaring the ball up, that’s all I can do.”
Don’t Forget Samardzija
After that dink-and-dunk first, both starting pitchers rotated easy innings on the mound. Samardzija gave up only one more hit (another double to McCutchen) and got eight strikeouts. In one 10-hitter span, the right-hander got nine whiffs and struck out six. Samardzija generated 15 swings-and-misses over seven innings, largely with the combination of a split-finger pitch, slider and fastball that touched 98 miles per hour.
How has Samardzija kept the Pirates at bay over his career, especially in two starts this year?
“Locates. That’s it. He locates,” McCutchen said. “When a pitcher locates, they’re pretty tough to hit.”
One Hiccup For Liriano
Liriano’s heater was not as devastating as that of his opponent, but he confounded the Cubs and delighted the 12,675 fans at PNC Park with his breaking ball. The only road bump was in the 3rd inning. Cody Ransom singled to left, then Liriano walked Darwin Barney after going ahead 0-2 on the second baseman. Samardzija laid a perfect bunt down the third-base line and Liriano’s throw pulled Neil Walker (not Garrett Jones) off first base.
Bases loaded, top of the order.
But Julio Borbon hit a sharp grounder right at Jones, who threw home for the easy force. Then Starlin Castro came up, and Liriano got behind on the young shortstop 2-1. Catcher Russell Martin went to talk with his pitcher.
“We weren’t on the same page with the signs,” Liriano said. “I just crossed them up right there.”
That mound meeting ended up being a turning point. Liriano struck out Castro with two of his patented sliders and got Anthony Rizzo to fly out. Crisis averted.
While Liriano had thrown only 91 pitches through seven frames after 98 in his last start, and says he told coaches he could have pitched another inning, manager Clint Hurdle removed him for reliever Tony Watson.
“He was done,” Hurdle said, and indeed Liriano’s velocity was slowing down.
Tony Watson and Mark Melancon sealed the deal (Melancon for his first 2013 save), even though both allowed the tying run into scoring position.
El Toro’s Smooth Glovework
The other hero in the Pirates’ victory was Pedro Alvarez. Though he was 0-for-3 at the plate, Alvarez made three stellar sliding plays on ground balls to his left side. Any could have dribbled through for hits, but the defensively-improving third baseman snared them all.
“The biggest thing sometimes is just learning how to play guys, positioning, just seeing the ball off the bat,” Alvarez said.
The Force In May
Liriano’s manager correctly points out that the left-hander’s off-speed stuff has always been good, but one key difference has improved his effectiveness early this year.
“When he gets ahead with his fastball… the other stuff plays up dramatically,” Hurdle said. “Those are the games that are electric for him.”
Fastball command was a point of emphasis for Liriano this spring, and it has led to a more complete product. He has won his first three starts, allowed only two total runs, and rolled out 25 strikeouts to just 6 walks. As Liriano puts it…
“I think everything’s working pretty good so far.”