Liriano locks down Cubs in outstanding outing

Second victory of day brings Bucs within half-game of NL Wild Card

Liriano locks down Cubs in outstanding outing

CHICAGO -- Jordy Mercer delivered two key hits. Francisco Liriano headlined the seven different pitchers delivering the key pitches.

But if you're looking for the Most Valuable Player of the Pirates' resurgence here, which on Saturday paired a 5-0 win in the nightcap of an impromptu "doubleheader" with the 5-3 triumph in the 11-inning conclusion of Friday's suspended game to move the Bucs just a half-game back of a Wild Card spot, you had to look beyond the bats and the gloves to the man with the stopwatch and notepad.

Mike Basso is the Pittsburgh advance scout who has been stalking the new, improved Cubs, and his shrewd eye -- when translated into the reports that greeted manager Clint Hurdle here -- set the Bucs up to extinguish a Chicago team that had been on fire.

These were the "new" Cubs, completely remade by moves and injuries since last seen by the Pirates, on June 22. With stalwarts first baseman Anthony Rizzo (strained back) and shortstop Starlin Castro (high ankle sprain) hobbled, Friday's starting lineup included only three incumbents from that last meeting.

"He's been here watching all the games," Hurdle said of Basso, "and he did a great job getting us all the information."

Pittsburgh pitchers, conversely, have done a great job executing on the intelligence. From Tony Watson, who worked the first two innings of the resumed game, through Brandon Cumpton, who finished off the nightcap, they threw 14 shutout innings at the Cubs on Saturday.

With headlining rookie blood such as Javier Baez and Jorge Soler, the Cubs had not gone consecutive games without homering since Aug. 14-15, and they had totaled 31 home runs in the 19 games since.

Liriano and the bullpen hung the first shutout since Aug. 9 on the Cubs.

Take another bow, Mr. Basso.

"He eyeballed these guys and had a long call the other night with Wyatt [Toregas, who compiles the video composite of the scouting reports]," Hurdle said. "[Mike] was able to shore up things we didn't have, and gave us heads up on things we weren't sure of. Every little nugget he threw out there played out -- our advance people have been very, very solid."

The Bucs had begun by taking the completion of Friday's game, stopped by rains and poor field conditions in the top of the seventh inning with the teams tied at 3. Harrison snapped a 3-3 tie with an 11th-inning single, his fourth hit of the two-day game.

With that line, Harrison again assumed lead of the National League batting race at .315, a point ahead of Philadelphia's Ben Revere.

Two batters into the nightcap, the Pirates had a lead. Starling Marte, batting leadoff for only the third time since April 27 due to Harrison's absence with left ankle discomfort, started off with a single and took second on lefty Felix Doubront's wild pitch to put himself in position to score on Mercer's single.

In the third, after Andrew McCutchen singled and Neil Walker doubled, Gaby Sanchez's RBI groundout made it 2-0.

McCutchen added on in the seventh against righty reliever Dan Straily, lining a sharp single with two outs to score pinch-runner Chase d'Arnaud from third, and Mercer launched a solo homer in the ninth.

Liriano was excused after six innings, in which he allowed three hits and issued two walks, while striking out nine. He retired the first two men in each of his six innings, minimizing the Cubs' chances to do any damage.

"That will always be a big plus for him, by limiting opportunities to catch him from the stretch," said Hurdle, citing Liriano's drop in command when he has to pitch with men on base. "We've seen it come and go, and he's still trying to find a little more consistency when he gets in the stretch."

It was the left-hander's third straight dominant start -- two runs permitted in 19 innings, with 22 strikeouts -- but the first in which he got a win. It was Liriano's first victory since July 29, and only his fourth of a season in which he has made 25 starts with a 3.74 ERA.

"I don't worry about that at all," said Liriano, whose starts have ended in 11 team wins, regardless of his personal record. "As long as we win the game, I'm fine with it. I do want to win, too, but the main thing is going out there to keep the team in the game by doing my job."

"He looked better than I've seen recently," Chicago manager Rick Renteria said. "He's been battling, and I thought his fastball had good life, and I thought his offspeed, his changeup, he was throwing it effectively. He did a nice job, and you have to tip your hat to him."

Justin Wilson worked the seventh, Jared Hughes pitched the eighth and Cumpton closed out the Bucs' first shutout since July 28, only their fourth of the season.

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.