Francisco Liriano spent most of the first inning trying to figure out where his fastball was going.
The St. Louis Cardinals certainly looked like they knew.
The defending National League champions hit the Pittsburgh ace early then pulled away late for a 6-1 win on Saturday night.
Six months removed from an emotional victory over the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NL division series, Liriano (0-1) wasn’t quite as sharp. The Cardinals pecked away for three runs in the first and while Liriano eventually calmed down to retire 13 straight batters before Yadier Molina’s solo shot in the sixth, the little wiggle room he gave St. Louis was enough.
“They’ve got some good hitters and they hit some good pitches down and I made a couple of mistakes too,” Liriano said. “That’s part of the game. Just one of those nights.”
It was the kind of night that Liriano largely avoided during his resurgent 2013, when he won 16 games to help the Pirates earn a wild card berth.
Elevated to the role of No. 1 starter following the offseason departure of A.J. Burnett, Liriano fell to 9-2 at PNC Park when Pittsburgh’s offense couldn’t take advantage of the chances provided by St. Louis starter Joe Kelly (1-0).
The Pirates left 11 runners on base and went 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position.
“He got the outs he needed,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “We worked to create opportunities we just weren’t able to cash in on them.”
The loss came just hours after Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington signed contract extensions that will keep them in Pittsburgh through at least 2017. The new deals are considered a reward for the work they’ve done in resuscitating the franchise and proof the team has no plans to take a step back after winning 94 games a year ago.
The Pirates certainly don’t look ready to cede anything to the Cardinals. The teams have split their last 26 meetings dating back to the beginning of 2013.
Still, a night after getting knocked around in a 12-2 loss, St. Louis responded quickly and decisively.
Matt Carpenter led off the game with a single. Jhonny Peralta walked and Matt Holliday followed with an RBI single to right. Peralta scored on a sacrifice fly by Allen Craig, with Holliday scoring on a perfectly placed single to left by Matt Adams.
The Pirates had their chances to get back in it against Kelly. They loaded the bases in the third but managed only a single run when Kelly walked Russell Martin.
Pittsburgh had two on with two outs in the fourth and two one with one out in the sixth but couldn’t come through.
St. Louis reliever Carlos Martinez came on after Kelly drilled pinch hitter Jose Tabata and retired Starling Marte and Travis Snider on groundouts to end the threat.
Liriano, who struck out 10 in six innings on opening day against the Cubs, discovered his rhythm after early trouble. He gave up four runs on seven hits in six innings, walking two and striking out four.
“I know he did get on a much better roll after the first inning and there have been a handful of (starts) where he hasn’t been (sharp) in the first inning,” Hurdle said. “But he settled down and looked like the guy we’ve seen the last year.”
The Cardinals’ bullpen didn’t give up a hit in 3 2-3 innings of work.
Molina provided insurance with a homer to left off Liriano in the sixth and Peralta slipped a two-run shot inside the left field foul pole against Pittsburgh reliever Jeanmar Gomez in the ninth for the final margin.
NOTES: Marte went 1 for 5 and has reached base in each of his 17 career games against St. Louis. ... St. Louis reliever Jason Motte, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow, participated in a simulated game in Florida on Saturday. Manager Mike Matheny said the team doesn’t have a pre-determined role set for Motte, who saved 42 games in 2012 before the injury. ... The series concludes on Sunday when Adam Wainwright (1-0, 0.00) is set to go for St. Louis against Edinson Volquez (0-0, 0.00), who pitched two innings of relief in a loss to the Cubs on Thursday.