Liriano knows how to open

By John Hartsock

PITTSBURGH When Pittsburgh Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano has his entire repertoire in sync, he’s one of the toughest pitchers in Major League Baseball for opposing batters to face.

Liriano showed midsummer form on a sunny but very chilly Sunday afternoon at PNC Park, tossing six shutout innings to lead the Pirates to a 4-1 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals before a sellout crowd of 39,500 fans in the first game of the 2016 major league season.

Liriano allowed just three hits over six innings, while striking out 10 batters and walking five. He became the first pitcher in Pirates’ history ever to strike out 10 batters in two opening-day starts, accomplishing the feat Sunday after also doing so in the Pirates’ 2014 season opener against the Chicago Cubs.

“Everything went the way we wanted it to today,” Liriano said. “We got the win, and that’s the most important thing. I was just taking one batter at a time, and I had good location on my fast ball and got ahead in the count.”

Cardinals’ first baseman Matt Adams, a Philipsburg-Osceola High School graduate who entered the game in the second inning after a teammate had left with an injury, was impressed with Liriano’s entire assortment of pitches.

“He had everything working,” said the left-handed hitting Adams, whose 0-for-4 day at the plate included striking out and grounding out in two appearances against Liriano. “His sinker was working, that’s for sure, and he throws that good, sweeping slider. Righty or lefty (batters), he was tough on both today.”

Game-time temperature Sunday was only 39 degrees, but the veteran Liriano warmed to the environment quickly.

“I just tried not to think about the weather,” Liriano said. “I knew it was cold out there, but I stayed loose, and I stayed focused on the game.”

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle couldn’t have asked for anything more from Liriano, opener or not.

“Frankie stayed aggressive, and he went out and pitched his ballgame,” Hurdle said. “Defensively, we made the plays we had to make.”

The Cardinals left the bases loaded in both the fourth and sixth innings, and failed on another excellent scoring opportunity in the third inning.

Trailing, 2-0 in the third, St. Louis had runners on second and third with only one out when Liriano induced Matt Carpenter to hit a soft groundball to shortstop Jordy Mercer that materialized into a tailor-made, inning-ending double play.

Mercer glided to his left, stepped on second base after fielding the ball, and threw on to new Pirates’ first baseman John Jaso to end the Cardinals’ threat.

“Frankie made a good pitch there,” Mercer said of Liriano. “Carpenter hit a cue shot to me, and I was close enough to the bag that I had plenty of time (to start the double play).”

The Cardinals loaded the bases in the fourth inning before Liriano struck out Kolten Wong swinging for the third out, and St. Louis filled the bases again in the sixth inning with just one out before Liriano got Wong to hit a broken-bat popout to second baseman Josh Harrison and new Pirates’ third baseman David Freese made an excellent short-hop play on Jedd Gyorko’s grounder and threw to second for the inning-ending forceout.

“He was awesome today,” Jaso said of Liriano. “On opening day, you’re so amped up. He did a great job and showed his composure in getting out of jams.”

Liriano, who outdueled Cardinals’ ace right-hander Adam Wainwright, also played a hand in the Pirates’ offense Sunday, hitting an RBI single off Wainwright to highlight the Bucs’ two-run second inning.

Outfielder Gregory Polanco stroked a double into the right-field corner to lead off the inning, advanced to third on Harrison’s groundout, and, after Mercer walked, Polanco scored when Liriano bounced a single into rightfield.

Harrison went to second base on Liriano’s single, and scored when Jaso blooped a single to right-centerfield.

“We had some good team at-bats today,” Mercer said.

The Pirates also nicked Wainwright for another run in the sixth inning when catcher Francisco Cervelli tripled into the notch in left-centerfield and eventually scored on Harrison’s sacrifice fly to center, giving Pittsburgh a 3-0 lead.

Polanco scored the Pirates’ fourth and final run in the eighth inning after hitting a single and eventually scoring from third when Mercer doubled into the right-center gap to make it a 4-0 game.

Following Liriano’s six shutout innings, lefty Tony Watson and new righty reliever Neftali Feliz threw scoreless innings in the seventh and eighth, respectively, for the Pirates.

Mark Melancon pitched the ninth in a non-save situation, allowing the only St. Louis run on Carpenter’s two-out RBI single to rightfield that scored catcher Yadier Molina who had led off the inning with a single from third base.

“I thought we played a good, clean game today,” Hurdle said.

Game notes: Sunday’s game was televised nationally by ESPN Adams, a 2006 P-O graduate who entered Sunday’s game at first base after an oblique injury suffered by Tommy Pham, faced Melancon in the ninth inning and flew out to Andrew McCutchen in center field to end the game. The Cardinals started right-handed hitting Matt Holliday in left field against Liriano, but when Pham got injured, Holliday moved to left field and Adams was inserted into the game at first. “Once the first ball was thrown, I was ready to go,” Adams said.