Liriano delivers promising start, but Pirates fall to Nationals
WASHINGTON — The latest loss by Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano cannot quite be lumped together will all the others this season.
There was little sign of the inelegance that had marred most of his 17 previous outings. Liriano breezed through the first three innings, then turned aside a rally by the Washington Nationals in the fourth.
Eventually, though, Liriano wore down, and the Pirates defense faltered. Aided by two errors, the Nationals scored four runs in the seventh inning and pulled out a 5-1 victory.
In six-plus innings, Liriano gave up three runs and five hits, walked three and struck out four. He threw first-pitch strikes to 18 of 26 batters.
“I kept it down and in the middle, not trying to be too fine on the corners,” Liriano said. “The fastball was working like I want it to. The slider, the changeup, too. Everything was working down and away. The last three starts, I’ve been getting better, little by little.”
He did not pick up a win — something Liriano has savored just once in nine starts since the end of May — but he might have found something to build on for the second half of the season.
Liriano (5-9) worked into the seventh inning for the first time since May 18. That in itself is an encouraging sign.
“We’ve been waiting for an opportunity to push him back out there for the seventh inning,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s good to see him move it deeper into the game.”
Although the Pirates won 12 of their final 16 games before the All-Star break, only three times in that stretch did a starting pitcher make it through the sixth inning.
Liriano retired the first nine batters he faced. It was his best start to a game this season, besting the seven in a row he retired over the first three innings on opening day.
“The body of work was good,” Hurdle said. “He made pitches.”
Trea Turner’s ground-ball single leading off the bottom of the fourth was the first hit by either team. The Nationals put runners on the corners with one out, but Bryce Harper’s comebacker triggered a double play.
The Pirates finally got to right-hander Stephen Strasburg (13-0) in the fifth. Starling Marte led off with a single to center and swiped second, the first stolen base of the season against Strasburg.
With two outs and Marte at third, Jordy Mercer dumped an RBI single just over the head of first baseman Clint Robinson into shallow right field.
In the bottom of the inning, the Nationals got a run on three straight hits. Robinson, who bats eighth and went into the game hitting .215, delivered an RBI single hit up the middle to make it 1-1.
Liriano started losing traction in the sixth when he walked Harper and Anthony Rendon with two outs. Liriano’s 91st pitch was a fastball to Wilson Ramos that produced an inning-ending groundout.
Despite the hiccups, Hurdle said sending Liriano back out for the seventh was a no-brainer.
“Are you looking to hit the air brakes and slow him down, or are you looking for an opportunity to give him more confidence?” Hurdle said. “I was pushing the button to let him go out there and attack. It didn’t work out.”
Danny Espinosa drew a four-pitch walk. Robinson rolled a single just beyond the reach of shifted second baseman Josh Harrison. Espinosa went to third.
“If we get to that ground ball, we turn two,” Hurdle said. “That’s how close the game can be sometimes.”
Neftali Feliz replaced Liriano. Nationals manager Dusty Baker opted to stick with Strasburg, who dropped down a bunt.
Feliz snagged the ball, then glanced over his shoulder to freeze Espinosa, who was halfway down the line. A good idea, but …
“Neftali kinda checked him, he kinda stopped him,” Hurdle said. “However, if he makes an arm fake or a throw, and we’ve got the guy hung out. (Espinosa) had gained too much yardage. ”
When Feliz threw to first baseman David Freese, Espinosa broke for home.
“I did notice the large lead he had,” Feliz said through an interpreter. “When I looked, he was leaning back toward third, and that’s when I threw to first.”
Espinosa scored and, worse yet, Freese failed to step on the bag. Everyone was safe.
“It’s just something that happens,” Feliz said.
Robinson went to third on a wild pitch and scored when catcher Eric Fryer threw the ball into left field.
Michael Taylor jerked a two-run homer into the right field seats and ended Feliz’s night.