Bucs opener at a glance

By John Hartsock

jhartsock@altoonamirror.com

PITTSBURGH – Highlights and sidelights from the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2016 season opener, Sunday afternoon against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park:

Player of the game: Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano drew the starting assignment in the first game of the 2016 Major League Baseball season and tossed six shutout innings, allowing the Cardinals only three hits and striking out 10 batters. Liriano became the first Pirate pitcher ever to strike out 10 batters in a season opener twice. He also accomplished the feat in 2014 against the Chicago Cubs. Other Pirate pitchers who struck out 10 batters in a season opener were Bob Veale (1965), John Candelaria (1983) and A.J. Burnett (2013).

Best pitching performance: Liriano.

Offensive star(s): Things were fairly spread out, with catcher Francisco Cervelli, new third baseman David Freese, and outfielder Gregory Polanco getting two hits apiece. Polanco scored twice and Cervelli scored once.

Key defensive effort(s): The Cardinals appeared to be gaining some momentum in the third inning, when Liriano induced Matt Carpenter to ground into a 6-3 double play. Pirate shortstop Jordy Mercer fielded Carpenter’s tailor-made ground ball, stepped on second, and threw to first to complete the double play.

Best defensive effort: Freese, a 2011 World Series hero with the Cardinals who was obtained by the Pirates as a free agent from the Los Angeles Angels earlier this spring, stabbed a rocket off the bat of Steven Piscotty and completed the throw to first base to end the St. Louis’ eighth inning.

Polar opposite: The Pirates’ home openers in 2015 and 2014 were both played under sunny skies and in very warm temperatures. The sun was out for Sunday afternoon’s opener as well, but the first-pitch temperature at 1:15 p.m. was just 39 degrees after snow had fallen through much of western Pennsylvania late Saturday night. Contrast that with the 2015 home opener, when temperature for the first pitch of the game between the Pirates and Detroit Tigers was 75 degrees.

Sold out again: Sellouts are becoming the rule rather than the exception at PNC Park, and a sellout crowd of 39,500 showed up again to greet the 2016 Pirates for the first time on Sunday.

Best moment: University of Pittsburgh running back James Conner, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma last December and currently in treatment, took the mound before the game and threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Setting the pace: Center fielder Andrew McCutchen became the first player in Pirates’ franchise history to win four straight Louisville Silver Slugger Awards. McCutchen, the National League’s Most Valuable Player in 2013, batted .292 in the 2015 season with 23 home runs, a career-high 96 RBIs, and 36 doubles.

Good as gold: Left fielder Starling Marte, whose 16 assists led all National League outfielders in 2015, was honored with a Rawlings Gold Glove and a Wilson Defensive Player of the Year award.

Save it for me: Closer Mark Melancon, who logged a Major League-leading 51 saves in 2015, was presented with the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year award by former Pirates’ bullpen standouts Kent Tekulve and El Roy Face.

Organization of the Year: The Pirates organization was recognized by Baseball America magazine as the sport’s 2015 Organization of the Year. Front-office moves and the Pirates’ player-development strategy played integral roles in the club ending a 20-year skein of consecutive losing seasons and making the National League playoffs in each of the past three seasons. The Pirates’ organization is now one which a lot of other Major League Baseball organizations wish to emulate.

Challenges/reviews: Three challenges were made in the game, two by the Cardinals, and all three calls were upheld upon review. In the first inning, home plate umpire Jerry Layne ruled that McCutchen was grazed by a pitch by St. Louis starter Adam Wainwright in the first inning. In the second inning, first base umpire Hunter Wendlestedtruled that Liriano’s RBI single through the right side of the infield did not hit Pirate baserunner Mercer, who was moving from first to second on the play. In the sixth inning, the Pirates’ Gregory Polanco was ruled out at second base on Josh Harrison’s sacrifice fly to center field.