DETROIT -- Francisco Liriano tossed seven scoreless innings, and a four-run ninth weathered a late comeback attempt as the Pirates completed a three-game sweep of the Tigers with an 8-4 win on Thursday afternoon at Comerica Park.
Meanwhile, the Buccos incrementally built their lead during the middle frames, tallying one run each in the fourth through seventh. Starling Marte's RBI single in the seventh seemed crucial an inning later, when Tigers right fielder J.D. Martinez's three-run home run brought his club to within a run, but the Pirates thwarted the comeback threat by plating four runs on as many hits off reliever Bruce Rondon in the ninth.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED
Gone big, going small: The day after including four homers in a 21-hit attack, the Pirates became conservative behind Liriano. After opening the fifth with consecutive walks, the Bucs shrugged off a potential big inning by having hot Jordy Mercer (15-for-40) sacrifice, then Andrew McCutchen got one run in on a sacrifice fly.
"We tried to find ways to continue to add runs with Frank out there; he was in a good spot," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We wanted to continue to spot up some runs."
No easy relief: The reliable Rondon entered a 4-3 game in the ninth, but he let any chance of a Detroit comeback quickly slip away. Mercer singled and McCutchen doubled him home, then the hard-throwing righty allowed a single to Marte and later a two-run double to Neil Walker. The two-bagger capped a seven-RBI series for the second baseman.
"We're not combining things well," Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "When we're hitting, we're not pitching. When we're pitching, we're not hitting. I think that's another example."
"To answer back, that was big," said Walker, who enjoyed his second straight four-hit game. "Even just to add one in that situation is big, and to do what we did was really big."
Hail Mercer: A frequent baseball unraveling -- starter shines, his relief quickly falters -- was avoided by Mercer's athletic grab of Victor Martinez's popup into "no man's land" with two on and no outs in the eighth. J.D. Martinez homered later in the inning.
"I just keep going until I hear someone calling me off," said Mercer, who wound up making a basket catch among two outfielders (Josh Harrison and Starling Marte) and the second baseman (Walker). "I didn't hear anyone, so it was mine."
"That's a big league play," Hurdle said. "It had the potential to be a game-saving play, and was a game-changing play, for sure."
Stating his case: Tigers manager Brad Ausmus has suggested J.D. Martinez should be an All-Star, and the right fielder continued to demonstrate why. His three-run homer -- his 21st of the year -- into the right-center-field seats cut Detroit's deficit to one and briefly thrilled the crowd of 34,680.
"Generally speaking, he doesn't try to do too much," Ausmus said of Martinez. "Now, having the type of power he does to right-center makes that a little easier." More >
"We're definitely still in it. To say we're out of it would be ludicrous. Quite frankly, the Pirates played much better than we did this series. We've been at .500 before. We're in the middle of the season now, but we're definitely still in this thing. Not for a second do I think we're not in this thing." -- Ausmus, on his team's playoff aspirationsMore >
"We played good baseball. We played tough. … We were tough off the mound, tough on defense and showed some backbone on offense." -- Hurdle, on the Bucs' first sweep in eight Interleague series at Detroit
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
J.D. Martinez is batting .372 with eight homers, 17 RBIs and 11 runs scored over his last 10 games.
In the Pirates' last seven Interleague games, since June 15, starting pitchers have collectively pitched 48 2/3 innings (averaging an out shy of seven per start) and allowed eight earned runs for an ERA of 1.48.
The Pirates posted their first 49-hit series since Aug. 28-30, 2006, in Chicago against the Cubs.
J.D. Martinez exchanged words with Sam Holbrook when the home-plate umpire called him out on strikes to lead off the fifth, and the disagreement boiled over moments later. Holbrook tossed Ausmus, who appeared to be arguing balls and strikes from the dugout during the ensuing at-bat, which sparked a heated verbal confrontation. It marked Ausmus' sixth ejection of his managerial career -- his third of the year -- and his first since May 19.
"Disagreement over ball and strikes," Ausmus said. "That was the final straw."
For the second time in as many games, umpires checked whether a fan had interfered with a live ball at the right-field wall. It took just 43 seconds for the crew to confirm that J.D. Martinez's homer had indeed cleared the fence.
WHAT'S NEXT Pirates: The Bucs will return home to kick off a festive PNC Park holiday weekend against the Cleveland Indians, with Charlie Morton leading it off at 7:05 p.m. ET on Friday. Morton has a streak of 18 scoreless innings against American League teams, albeit not reflected by his lifetime 3-6 Interleague record.