PITTSBURGH -- The results had been creeping in the right direction for Francisco Liriano this month, small but visible signs of progress. He limited the damage to three runs or less in back-to-back starts, then he completed six innings his last time out. But still, it wasn't quite vintage Liriano.
There were too many walks and not enough strikeouts, too many long at-bats and not enough swinging strikes. Thursday night at PNC Park? That was more like it. The veteran left-hander struck out 13 and didn't walk anyone over 6 2/3 innings, leading Pittsburgh to a 5-3 win over Milwaukee.
"He sure was [more like 2013-15] tonight," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We'll see what happens in the next start. I believe he's got a good foundation to build off of."
The rotation has underperformed all season, and Liriano was complicit in the underwhelming group effort. Over his previous 12 starts, he was 2-8 with a 5.94 ERA. He led the Majors with 62 walks.
But Liriano looked like a different pitcher Thursday -- well, maybe not different. Familiar, in a nice-to-see-you-again kind of way.
"We've seen this before, so it's not like he's digging somewhere he's never been before," Hurdle said. "I think it's just a culmination of things. The confidence that he showed out there early tonight, he just carried it on through. Really good focus, followed the game plan."
Even when Liriano fell behind in the count -- and he often did, throwing only 10 of 24 first-pitch strikes -- he battled back. He made one early mistake, an 0-2 fastball in the third to Jonathan Villar that landed over the center-field fence.
Aside from that, he found himself in enough favorable counts to lean on his slider and changeup. He had command of both pitches, and they both baffled the Brewers.
"It looked like he was throwing Wiffle balls up there, to be honest with you," Pirates outfielder Matt Joyce said. "It's one of those nights where you're like, 'Man, thank God I'm not facing him.' He was on. He had some nasty stuff tonight, and he was throwing strikes."
Asked when he last had such good command of and movement on his offspeed pitches, Liriano looked down, paused, smiled and said, "A long time ago. A long time ago."
But Liriano looked more like the strikeout machine who pitched atop the Pirates' rotation the past three seasons -- and like the pitcher the Bucs need him to be down the stretch.
"Just working between starts. I've been working since before the All-Star break," Liriano said. "Everything's coming. Working, executing pitches and not trying to do too much.
"I feel I've been getting better since before the All-Star break. I've got to keep working and hopefully keep getting better."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.