By Will Graves
Francisco Liriano doesn’t like to think about what might have been. At the moment, the present is so sweet there’s no use focusing on the past.
The veteran left-hander’s renaissance hit a new high in Pittsburgh’s 5-0 win over the Oakland Athletics on Wednesday night.
Liriano (9-3) scattered four hits over seven innings, striking out six and walking one to lower his ERA to a scant 2.00 as the Pirates snapped a four-game losing streak. The victory capped a remarkable first half for the former All-Star whose career hasn’t been the same since reconstructive elbow surgery six years ago. At last, it seems, at age 29 he is all the way back.
Not that he wants to talk about it.
“I don’t think about ’06 at all,” Liriano said. “I just try to learn how to pitch, how to move on.”
That includes trying to stay focused during a lengthy rain delay of nearly three hours. When Liriano finally took the mound at soggy PNC Park just before 10 p.m., he didn’t waste time. Attacking the strike zone relentlessly, Liriano kept the AL West-leading A’s off-balance all night.
“He set the tone, he dominated,” Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said. “He was just on top of his game.”
And the Pirates didn’t let it go to waste.
Pedro Alvarez went 2 for 4 and drove in two runs for Pittsburgh. Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Jose Tabata also had two hits each as the Pirates beat Oakland for the first time.
Pittsburgh came in 0-11 against the A’s since interleague play began in 1997, but broke loose against Tommy Milone (8-8). The Pirates managed just six runs total during a four-game slide that dropped them behind St. Louis in the battle for first in the NL Central but nearly matched that total on a night they went 5 for 9 with runners in scoring position, heady territory for a team that came in hitting just .226 with runners on second or third this season.
“I think we did a pretty good job of consistently pressing them and attacking them,” Alvarez said.
A little help is all baseball’s top pitching staff needs these days. Pittsburgh’s 13th shutout lowered its team ERA to 3.09, easily the best in baseball. Liriano’s performance marked the 24th time in 25 games a starter has allowed three earned runs or fewer.
“I’m just trying to learn how to go out there every fifth day and make pitches,” Liriano said.
He made enough to cool off the surging A’s. Oakland had won 10 of 13 to vault over Texas and into the lead in the AL West but Milone struggled with his command.
The left-hander was coming off a season-high 8 1-3 innings of work in a win over Kansas City last week. He didn’t make it out of the third inning as Pittsburgh’s offense showed signs of life.
Marte doubled leading off the third, and Tabata followed with an RBI double. McCutchen drove Tabata home with a single, and Alvarez followed two batters later with a single to center that scored McCutchen.
That was enough for Milone, who needed 80 pitches to get through 2 2-3 innings.
“They were doing a good job of putting the ball in play and falling,” Milone said. “And even though they weren’t hit very hard, you always give yourself a chance when you put the ball in play and that’s what they were doing.”
He was replaced by Pat Neshek, who made his first appearance since June 29. The rust showed. Pittsburgh tacked on two more runs in the fourth to give Liriano all the cushion he would need to cap a remarkable first half for one of baseball’s best comeback stories.
“I like the way I’ve been pitching and the way we’ve all been playing,” Liriano said. “Right now, we’re in good position to make the playoffs and we want to continue playing like that in the second half and hopefully make the postseason.”
NOTES: Former Oakland first-round draft pick Sonny Gray made his major league debut in the fifth inning. The right-handed pitcher, called up from Triple-A Sacramento on Tuesday, tossed two scoreless innings, allowing one hit and striking out three. ... The Pirates begin a three-game series on Friday at home against the New York Mets. Charlie Morton (1-2, 3.38 ERA) starts for the Pirates against Jeremy Hefner (4-6, 3.39). ... Oakland ends the first half of the season at home against the Boston Red Sox. Jarrod Parker (6-6, 4.04) starts for the A’s.