PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates' Opening Day starter finally returned to top-of-the-rotation form Thursday night. Left-hander Francisco Liriano struck out 13 without a walk and led the Pirates to a 5-3 win over the Brewers at PNC Park.
Liriano had been unreliable for the better part of the season, going 1-6 with a 6.02 ERA in his past nine starts, leaving the Pirates with yet another question mark in their struggling rotation. He made progress earlier this month, but he took a big step forward as he held the Brewers to one run -- a Jonathan Villar solo shot to center field -- over his first six innings in the rubber game. Milwaukee tacked on two more runs, one of them charged to Liriano, in a sloppy seventh, but Liriano earned the standing ovation he received as he walked into the dugout after 6 2/3 innings.
"We've seen this before. It's not like he's digging somewhere he's never been," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "It's just a culmination of things. The confidence he showed out there early tonight, he just carried it through."
The Pirates struck early against Brewers right-hander Matt Garza, running up a three-run lead in the first when Matt Joyce hit a down-the-middle fastball for a three-run home run, Joyce's ninth of the season. Garza allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits and two walks over five innings.
"I've seen [Liriano] a lot, lot better, I've seen him when we were both young, but today he had great stuff," Garza said. "He went to his soft stuff early, and I decided to take a little longer. You see the paths there. You just keep going. My stuff's there; it's more about making pitches and not giving up that big one when it hurts."
Pittsburgh has won 12 of its past 17 games, while Milwaukee has lost 13 of 19.
MOMENTS THAT MATTERED Re-Joyce: Informed he'd be in the lineup about 15 minutes before first pitch, Joyce made the most of his spot start in right field. Batting cleanup in place of Starling Marte, sidelined with flu-like symptoms but able to play as a late-inning defensive replacement, Joyce ripped a three-run shot into the right-field seats in the first. The 388-foot homer came off Joyce's bat at 108 mph, according to Statcast™. Joyce also plated a run in the third by legging out a potential double-play ground ball.
"That's a wonderful late start," Hurdle said. "His first swing of the bat was loud. Fun to watch. He's been that kind of guy, kind of like a fireman. He's ready to go." More >
Perez-ing the issue: The Brewers lost four of six games on their road trip despite the best efforts of utility man Hernan Perez, who went 8-for-17 while making starts at third base and right field. He went 2-for-4 as the right fielder Thursday, including a heads-up double in the seventh that drove in one run and led to another. Perez alertly took second base when he noticed no Pirates player was covering the bag, then went to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Liriano and scored on Scooter Gennett's groundout.
Back to normal:Mark Melancon had blown his past two save opportunities, rare mistakes for the usually reliable closer, who had converted 23 straight save chances in a row. Both of those lost leads came with two outs and two strikes in the ninth. Melancon ran in from the bullpen with a two-run lead Thursday and delivered a more typical performance. The right-hander induced two ground outs and struck out Gennett for the final out, locking up his 28th save.
On the board: Villar cut the Brewers' deficit to 3-1 with a two-out homer in the third that traveled 425 feet per Statcast™, making it Villar's longest homer this season. It was his seventh, matching his career high, and represented the Brewers' only hit from Perez's single in the second to Ryan Braun's single leading off the seventh.
"We're going to go with those guys right now." -- Brewers manager Craig Counsell, on struggling starters Chase Anderson and Garza, each of whom have ERAs above 9.00 over the past month More >
"It's just one of those nights where you're like, 'Man, thank God I'm not facing him.' He was on." -- Joyce, on Liriano
SOUND SMART WITH YOUR FRIENDS
Liriano became the first Pirates starter to record an out in the seventh inning since left-hander Jeff Locke pitched seven innings June 25. Liriano had not logged more than 18 outs in a game since May 18.
Liriano was the second Pirates pitcher since at least 1913 to strike out 13 or more batters without a walk. The other: Jose DeLeon, who punched out 14 Mets without a walk on April 16, 1985.
Pirates setup man Tony Watson pitched the eighth, his 197th appearance at PNC Park, tied with John Grabow for the most in the park's 15-year history.
WHAT'S NEXT Brewers: The Brewers return to Miller Park for their first homestand of the second half, beginning with three games against the National League Central-leading Cubs. Jimmy Nelson starts Friday's 7:10 p.m. CT series opener against Chicago right-hander and potato chip aficionado Jason Hammel.
Pirates:Gerrit Cole will start the Pirates' series opener against the Phillies on Friday at 7:05 p.m. ET at PNC Park, looking to get back on track after a shaky return from the disabled list Saturday. Cole allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits over five innings in a loss to the Nationals, his first outing since June 10.