"They get in routines," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said when discussing Liriano's potential rust. "Not to make excuses, but that was probably the challenge he had tonight: repeating his delivery and holding himself over the mound before he went to deliver it. He was in a little bit of a hurry sometimes, so the command wasn't what we've seen."
Much like the Pirates, who enjoyed the club's best first half since winning the World Series in 1971, Liriano was stellar before the break, going 9-3 with a 2.00 ERA. He walked just 28 batters while striking out 80 in 76 2/3 innings and gave up more than two runs just twice.
On Friday, though, the 29-year-old left-hander never appeared comfortable.
"I think I was trying to overthrow in the beginning, so I couldn't have anything going tonight," Liriano said. "It was just one of those days when you can't get a good rhythm and locate your pitches. It was all over the plate, and everything was up in the zone."
The Reds got to Liriano early, as Chris Heisey hit a solo home run two batters into the first to give his team the early advantage. Liriano followed with three scoreless innings, but the only time he looked like the pitcher he was in the first half was when he delivered a perfect fourth frame. He walked four on the night while striking out four.
The wheels fell off for Liriano in the fifth, which started with a double by Reds catcher Devin Mesoraco, who did the Pirates a favor when he was tagged out trying to advance to third on a ground ball to short in the next at-bat. Liriano couldn't take advantage, though. Following a single by Shin-Soo Choo, Heisey singled to drive in his second run of the game before Joey Votto loaded the bases with a walk that ended Liriano's night after just 4 1/3 innings.
"The counts were deeper than he wanted, [and] he threw more pitches than he wanted to," Hurdle said of Liriano. "But as he's always done, he battled and battled and we were a pitch or two away of getting out of that situation."
Hurdle turned to left-hander Justin Wilson to face Brandon Phillips and try to escape the one-out bases-loaded jam created by Liriano. Entering Friday, righties were batting just .165 with 33 strikeouts against Wilson this season. However, the right-handed Phillips took the second pitch he saw from Wilson and sent it to left-center field for a bases-clearing double to put the Reds on top, 5-0.
Although his team already held the lead, Reds manager Dusty Baker said those four runs in the fifth were crucial.
"When you play those guys, you know they're not going to quit," Baker said. "We have to keep scoring and keep scoring."
The Pirates showed their resolve when they stormed back in the sixth. Starling Marte led off the inning with a home run to right-center field to put Pittsburgh on the board, followed by an Andrew McCutchen solo shot two batters later. Pedro Alvarez then fouled out to the catcher for the second out of the inning, but Russell Martin delivered his ninth homer of the season in the next at-bat to cut the Reds' advantage to two.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, that was the only time they were able to get anything going against Cincinnati starter Mike Leake, who earned his second win over the Pirates this season.
"He was varying all his pitches for me personally," said McCutchen, who went 1-for-3. "He really didn't throw me any fastballs. I had cutters, sliders, curveballs, changeups. We did have a couple good at-bats off him. Too bad we weren't able to jump on them earlier than the time that we did."
Pittsburgh put multiple runners on base just once in the first five innings, when Garrett Jones doubled in the second and Clint Barmes was intentionally walked to get to Liriano, who ended the inning with a groundout.
After the three-run rally in the sixth, pinch-hitter Travis Snider led off the seventh with a single and Jose Tabata later walked. McCutchen advanced Snider to third on a fielder's choice, but the inning ended on Alvarez's strikeout. Pittsburgh put a runner on in both the eighth and ninth innings but came away with nothing to show for it.
With the loss and a St. Louis win, the Pirates (56-38) dropped to two games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central, while the Reds pulled within three games of Pittsburgh. But on a hot and muggy night to start the season's unofficial second half, Hurdle said he was happy to see that his guys never quit.
"We responded after their inning with some good swings and some balls that were centered by us and barreled up," Hurdle said of the Pirates, who recorded 10 hits. "So it was good to see us bounce back."