Liriano shaky in return, as Bucs lose to Reds

Southpaw allows six walks and three runs in four-inning stint

Liriano shaky in return, as Bucs lose to Reds

CINCINNATI -- A long "first-half" of the season for the Pirates -- the 95 games prior to the All-Star break matched the franchise high -- got just a little longer on Sunday, when a mid-game, 56-minute rain delay interrupted the game with the Reds.

So by the time Game No. 95 ended in defeat No. 46, manager Clint Hurdle had to welcome the hiatus with open arms.

"The break is coming at a real good time for us to catch our breath, and get ready for the second half," Hurdle said following the Bucs' curtain-lowering 6-3 loss to the Reds at Great American Ball Park.

Todd Frazier's two-run homer off Vance Worley in the sixth warded off Pittsburgh's comeback attempts against Cincinnati ace Johnny Cueto, and made sure the sting would remain from Francisco Liriano's long-awaited return.

Liriano's first start following a month on the DL with a strained left oblique only added to his puzzling season. The Bucs had hoped a strong start from their '13 ace would heighten anticipation for the season's second half. Instead, the lefty just remained an enigma by staying stuck on one win in his last 18 starts.

"Had to get him back in a big league game to find out. A Triple-A game is not always the thermometer you're looking for," said Hurdle, alluding to Liriano's one rehab start for Indianapolis, six scoreless innings on Monday. "He was rusty. His command will improve."

That is why Liriano had already been given the starting assignment to launch the season's second half on Friday against Colorado at PNC Park. Making the starts on regular rest will make it easier for him to get locked in.

"We're trying to get him in rhythm," Hurdle said, nodding, "give him every opportunity to get out of the blocks, to get going and create some momentum -- to see what we got."

That's a comment with potentially a powerful message behind it. That next start will come on July 18 -- less than two weeks before the non-waiver Trade Deadline. The Bucs may need to determine what they can expect from Liriano before deciding whether to look for a veteran starter on the market.

Liriano needed 94 pitches on Sunday to make it through four innings, allowing only three hits but six walks. Last season, Liriano pitched a complete game in St. Louis on a total of 94 pitches.

The lefty's stint ended right before the rain delay -- he departed for a pinch-hitter in the fifth. It was a mixed bag, for certain. He had all sorts of command issues, being surrounded by baserunners the whole time. Yet, he was only hurt by an unknown's three-run homer -- Kristopher Negron went deep in the second, on his second big league at-bat since 2012.

"I was told to throw [him] the change down and away," Liriano said of his approach to someone he'd not faced before. "It stayed up the middle, a mistake pitch, and he got it pretty good."

Said Negron, "[Liriano] sinks the ball away, changeup away, so anything up in the zone on the outer half of the plate, I was looking to drive that way."

Liriano was at his best with the bases loaded, putting an 0-for-3 on the Reds in those situations, including strikeouts of the last two men he faced -- Frazier and Chris Heisey.

"I tried to make good pitches when I needed to, to give the guys a chance to stay in the ballgame," Liriano said. "I was too excited [at the outset], and it was not easy to stay focused on hitting my spots."

The Reds' lead from Negron's homer dissipated slowly -- like rain water down a drain -- but never completely emptied, thanks to Frazier's "corner kick" off Worley.

With Billy Hamilton aboard via a single, Frazier sliced a shot down the right-field line just inside the foul pole -- a homer measured at 331 feet.

"Frazier ... he continues to show up," said Hurdle, clearly impressed. "That pitch he ended up hitting ... we looked at it again, that's really good hitting. To take that ball with that body position, keep it fair inside the pole and out of the park, is pretty impressive."

Andrew McCutchen's fourth-inning triple, followed by Neil Walker's RBI groundout and Josh Harrison's RBI single in the fifth had made it 3-2.

The Reds got one back in their fifth, on Devin Mesoraco's double off Stolmy Pimentel, then Walker led off the sixth with his 13th homer to make it 4-3.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.