For the first 25 minutes or so if this game, I'm not sure I exhaled once. Francisco Liriano needed 22 pitches to get through the first inning, and it seemed like his control was just a little bit off. In the bottom of the inning, Jose Tabata singled and Neil Walker followed that with a double, taking advantage of a poor decision by Matt Holliday to try and throw Tabata out at third. The next few minutes were nerve-wracking. Andrew McCutchen fouled off three straight pitches before striking out on the seventh pitch of his at-bat. Pedro Alvarez was promptly hit by Shelby Miller's first pitch to him to load the bases up. Marlon Byrd had a seven-pitch strikeout of his own, fouling off a few more pitches before ultimately succumbing.
Individual moments of single baseball games seem to get magnified way out of proportion given their importance to the long season, but when Garrett Jones stepped up to the plate with the bases loaded and two out in the first inning, it sure felt like there was a whole lot riding on the at-bat. The Pirates have put runners on base early in games and failed to score several times over the last few weeks, and it seems like those games inevitably end poorly for the Bucs. With the unsteady first inning from Liriano, it felt like the Pirates could be teetering on the edge of the same sort of frustrating game.
And then Garrett Jones laced a double into right field, Tabata and Walker scored, and I finally exhaled. From that point on, everything was downhil. Liriano settled in and buzzed through the Cardinals the same way that he has all year. Tonight, his final line was eight innings, six strikeouts, two walks, two hits, no runs allowed, and only 95 pitches. He probably would've been allowed to finish the shutout if Mark Melancon had pitched more recently than last Friday. Garrett Jones added in a home run and an RBI single, and Russell Martin followed Jones's solo homer with one of his own in the fourth inning. Francisco Liriano even drew two walks and got within 90 feet of scoring the first run of his career.
For the third time in a month, I feel like I'm writing the same thing about a Francisco Liriano start against the Cardinals: this was EXACTLY what the Pirates needed. They've been stuck in neutral for a few weeks now and every time it seems like they're about to kick out of it, they slide back a little. Getting a clean and easy win in the first game of this series takes a lot of pressure off of the Pirates. The division race will continue beyond this series now, now matter what happens in the last two games. The aura of invincibility they've had against the Cardinals all year is back. And they're back in a first place tie with the Cardinals after falling out of first place last week. That's certainly not something we've seen the Pirates do this late in the season before.