Francisco Liriano, this year's A.J. Burnett but without the actual acknowledgement, pitched seven innings, striking out eight and walking two, as the Pirates defeated St. Louis, 9-2, Monday night, to open the important five game series at PNC Park.
Liriano improves to 11-4 on the season and has been one of the most incredible (if mostly under the radar) additions to the team in quite some time. There was much made about the acquisition of Burnett a season ago, and the contributions he made to the team, both on the field and in the clubhouse.
The fact is, Burnett was a Godsend, going 16-10 and mentoring many of the young Pirates players as they learned how to be professional major leaguers and compete in a pennant race.
However, as good as Burnett was a year ago, Liriano is even better this season. In addition to his 11-4 mark, Liriano also has a 2.16 ERA. And believe it or not, the experts on ESPN were actually including him in discussions for the National League Cy Young award.
In all fairness, pitching is often about luck and what your offense does the day you're on the mound. Speaking of Burnett, his ERA this season is 2.96, or over a half a point lower than it was in 2012. Unfortunately, he's been pitching on the days when the Pirates often anemic offense is really, really anemic. And if it's not the offense, it's the defense, like in Burnett's previous start in Washington last Thursday, when the defense committed three errors in a four run first inning in what would be a 9-7 loss. Burnett (4-7) didn't take the loss, but he sure deserved a better fate.
No, sometimes, it's all about being fortunate. Monday night, Liriano benefited from the much-maligned Pittsburgh offense getting off to a hot start. It helped that Jake Westbrook, now 1-8 lifetime against the Pirates, was the mound opponent. Nine pitches into the game, Pittsburgh had a 4-0 lead, thanks to a walk to Jose Tabata to start off the game, a hits batsmen on Neil Walker, a single by Andrew McCutchen and a three run bomb by Pedro Alvarez (now the National League home run leader with 27 bombs).
The Pirates tacked on five more runs in the bottom of the seventh, and the route was on.
The victory pulled Pittsburgh to within a half a game of the Cardinals in the National League Central and four and half games ahead of the Reds, who lost in San Diego, Monday night.
Burnett takes the mound in Game 1 of a double-header, Tuesday afternoon, and if all goes well, the Pirates could find themselves all alone in first place by night's end. .