PITTSBURGH — The Brewers said they wanted to make Francisco Liriano throw strikes. That, they were able to accomplish. The Brewers said they wanted to lay off Liriano’s pitches outside the zone. That, they couldn’t do, as Liriano fanned 13 Brewers on the way to a 5-3 Pirates victory Thursday night.
It started with the fastball command. Liriano didn’t necessarily always get ahead of the Brewers’ batters, but he remained around the plate with the fastball and used it to get deeper into counts. That’s when the breaking stuff played, and boy did it play. With the slider, in particular, he was seemingly able to put it wherever he wanted it: on the black, off the plate or for a strike.
“It looked like he was throwing wiffle balls up there,” said right fielder Matt Joyce. “The kind of movement he was getting with his pitches, it was one of those nights [I] thank God I’m not facing him. He was on. he had some nasty stuff tonight and he was throwing strikes.”
Of Liriano’s 103 pitches over 6.2 innings, 67 of them went for strikes, and his ability to put hitters in two-strike counts with his entire three-pitch repertoire really kept the Brewers off-balance.
“His off-speed stuff was excellent tonight,” Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell said. “He got ahead of hitters, too, where you couldn’t be patient. Any time he fell behind, he was good in the strike zone, and his fastball was probably plus tonight, 95 [MPH] and a couple 96’s He threw a good game.”
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle also thought that Liriano’s ability to throw strikes while behind in the count was impressive.
“His 1-0 pitch was electric,” Hurdle said. “He had 10 out of 24 first-pitch strikes. Fourteen times, he was ball one. After that, his fastball was all around the plate. … The slider was electric. The changeup was disappearing. No walks. 13 punch-outs. Really good stuff. Really good composure. Very good tempo. A very impressive outing.”
Liriano said he focused on not trying to “do too much,” something that has been a bit of a mantra for him since struggling in June. He also credit his fastball and overall command as a difference-maker. By being able to throw all of his pitches for strikes, it made it impossible for the Brewers hitters to lay off the soft stuff.
“You have to have the command and then you have to have the talent to put them away,” he said. “If you don’t have your fastball command, you’re in trouble. It was good to be able to throw everything for a strike today. I think that was a little different.”
As shown above, nine of Liriano’s 13 strikeouts came on the slider, and that pitch can have a cartoon-like spin, as Joyce described. The ability to control it the way Liriano did Thursday is difficult to repeat from start to start, so while Hurdle was enthused by the performance, he wasn’t ready to declare Liriano’s issues over.
“He was [back] tonight,” Hurdle said. “We’ll see with the next start. He’s got a good foundation to build on.”
Matt Joyce was somewhere in the bowels of PNC Park when he found out he was going to be in the starting lineup at about 6:35 p.m. At about 7:15, he sent a 1-0 fastball from Matt Garza into the seats atop the Clemente Wall with Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco on base to give the Pirates an early 3-0 lead.
Joyce was a late add because Starling Marte came down with flu-like symptoms right before the first pitch.
“[Joyce’s] first swing of the bat was loud. Fun to watch,” Hurdle said. “He’s been that kind of guy. He’s kind of like a fireman, he’s ready to go. We got a heads up late. It wasn’t like it happened early, either. The thing came on Marte late. [Trainer Todd Tomczyk] comes running up to me in the dugout at 6:30 and we came up with a new lineup in five minutes.”
Joyce has been an excellent pinch-hitter for the Pirates all season, so the late notice wasn’t exactly an issue for him.
“To find out that late that you’re starting is kind of hard but we had plenty of time to prepare and I did a couple things just to make sure if anything did happen I was ready,” he explained. “You [can] kind of rush through your preparation and sometimes you can carry that into the game and rush through your whatever you call it, your mechanics, your approach. I felt myself rushing a little bit going to hit, coming on deck, tried to take deep breaths and slow myself down. Everyone knows Garza’s tough, he made a mistake there and I was able to capitalize on it.”
Joyce also had an RBI groundout in the third inning that scored Polanco. Marte felt well enough to enter the game in the eighth inning as part of a double switch. He went 0 for 1.
It took him three tries, but Mark Melancon finally converted his 28th save after blowing two consecutive opportunities. … Polanco and McCutchen were each 2 for 3 with a walk. … Adam Frazier went 1 for 4 with an RBI batting leadoff.