Monday, April 4, 2016

Pirates Open in Style Against Ailing Cards

By Jeff Kallman

Let history record that the first run batted in of the 2016 season was delivered by a pitcher. At the plate. A pitcher who'd had only three runs batted in in his entire career (nine seasons) prior to last year, when he drove in seven. And his name wasn't Madison Bumgarner.

Oh, yes. The Pirates' Francisco Liriano did manage to strike out ten Cardinals, tying the club Opening Day record he already shared (2014) with John Candelaria (1983), leading his mates to a 4-1 win to start a season in which the National League Central going in promised to look like a dogfight between those two clubs and the Cubs for top honors.

But on a day Adam Wainwright didn't look very sharp, in his first start back from the torn Achilles that kissed his 2015 goodbye, Liriano proved as big with the bat as on the mound. With Gregory Polanco (leadoff double) aboard third (on a followup force-out at first) and Jordy Mercer (one-out walk) on first, Liriano swung on the first pitch and drilled one past second base to send Polanco home and open the scoring.

John Jaso followed up with a base hit right back up the pipe, also on the first pitch, sending home Mercer, and suddenly the Pirates had a 2-0 lead the Cardinals wouldn't overcome.

Part of that was Liriano's doing. With Jedd Gyorko (walk) on third following catcher Francisco Cervelli's throwing error off a Wainwright bunt, setting up first and third with one out, Liriano drew Matt Carpenter into hitting into an inning-ending, step-and-throw double play to shortstop in the third. He struck out Kolten Wong with the bases loaded to end the St. Louis fourth. And he squirmed out of another pads-padded scenario in the sixth, getting Wong to pop out to second and Gyorko to hit into an inning-ending force out at second.

The Cardinals seemed able to push but not shove when they absolutely had to, Liriano finding the right moves on his usual sinker/slider array, and were probably lucky to pry a run out of Pirates closer Mark Melancon after first taking advantage of his small round of rust in the ninth. Yadier Molina opened with a base hit, Wong took a plunk for first and second, Gyorko made it second and third on a ground out to first, and — after Melancon rang up Brandon Moss with a swishout — Carpenter swatted Molina home with a single to right, moving Wong to third. But Matt Adams flied out to Andrew McCutchen and the Pirates had the game.

The Pirates added to Liriano's pleasure with Josh Harrison's sacrifice fly to center in the sixth, scoring Cervelli, who'd atoned for his earlier defensive mistake with a leadoff triple. The bad news was Polanco (no-out walk) getting bagged at second on the play trying to advance on the throw in. Against Wainwright's second reliever Sean Maness in the eighth, with second and third and one out, Cervelli was thrown out trying to steal home on a double steal try. No problem. Mercer yanked Polanco home with a double to the back of the yard.

Adams was in the game in the first place after the Cardinals' thought about Matt Holliday playing first lasted long enough for left fielder Tommy Pham to come out with a tight left oblique, moving Holliday out to left and Adams out to first.

This was also a game in which the PNC Park replay system faltered early enough and long enough that the umps gave both teams unlimited crew reviews.

The Cardinals, unfortunately, are no strangers to Opening Day falterings. This was the fifth consecutive Opening Day on which they struck out nine times or more. And Sunday's game further exposed their batting struggles, with the Cardinals blowing not just two bases-loaded opportunities but failing to take advantage of the five walks the often-inconsistent Liriano handed them.

It won't get simpler soon. Gyorko was in the starting lineup because the disabled list has claimed incumbent starting shortstop Jhonny Peralta and Ruben Tejada, whom the Mets cut loose earlier in the spring. Catching backup Brayan Pena — whom the Cardinals signed to two years and $5 million because he hit better than Molina's previous fill-ins — faces knee surgery in the coming week. And Wainwright's comeback from the Achilles won't be simple if he can build a case against his mates for non-support.

Last year, the Cardinals had pitching enough to out-throw their plate futilities and win 100 games. That was then, this is now, and they're going to need a Wainwright back to as full strength as possible, even with all-star Michael Wacha behind him, to get anywhere close again.

The good news: there are a mere 161 games to go. Season on!

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