Pirates-Reds Preview

The Associated Press

No team boasted a better pitching staff through the season's first half than the Pittsburgh Pirates, and Francisco Liriano's surprising resurgence was one of the biggest reasons why.

But for all that Liriano has done, he has failed to beat the Cincinnati Reds in both of his starts.

He hopes the third try proves more favorable Friday night at Cincinnati, where the Reds counter with Mike Leake, the winning pitcher in both of those games.

An equally tough rotation and bullpen has fueled the Pirates' major league-leading 3.07 ERA and a 56-37 record, their best All-Star break since 1991.

Pittsburgh's decision to sign Liriano (9-3, 2.00 ERA) to a one-year deal worth just $1 million guaranteed was seen as a low-risk investment, but it's one that's helped bolster the staff.

He's tied for seventh in the NL in wins despite making only 12 starts and his ERA would rank second if he threw enough innings to qualify. The left-hander's 32.5 swing-and-miss percentage is tied with Yu Darvish for baseball's best and his highest since 2006, his final season before Tommy John surgery.

"I'm just trying to learn how to go out there every fifth day and make pitches," said Liriano, who allowed four hits in seven innings while recording his fourth straight victory in a 5-0 win over Oakland on July 10.

He hasn't lost since a 4-1 defeat at Cincinnati on June 17, and his most recent loss prior to that was a 2-0 home setback to the Reds (53-42) on June 1. Liriano yielded only three runs with 17 strikeouts over 12 innings in those contests, but Leake (8-4, 2.69) was slightly better, limiting Pittsburgh to one run over 13 innings.

Leake won for the first time in four starts in his last outing prior to the break, giving up two runs and four hits over a season-high 8 1-3 innings in a 6-2 victory at Milwaukee on July 10.

He'll take on a Pirates offense looking to supply more run support, particularly with more clutch hitting. Pittsburgh's .230 batting average with runners in scoring position is the league's worst. More consistent offense could mean the difference between the team's first playoff berth in 21 years and another second-half flameout, which the Pirates are familiar with. Their 56-93 post-break record over the last two seasons is the third-worst in baseball.

"It shows we've got things we've got to work on," said Andrew McCutchen, who owns a team-leading .847 OPS and posted a 1.015 mark over his last 21 games before the break. "And that's all we're worried about."

A lack of timely hitting has also plagued Cincinnati more recently. The team's .218 average with runners in scoring position is the third-lowest in the majors dating back to May 29, a span in which the Reds went 20-23. They trailed St. Louis in the NL Central by 1 1/2 games prior to that stretch, and are now five games behind the Cardinals and four behind the Pirates.

Joey Votto, a career .347 hitter with runners in scoring position, is batting .256 in such situations since May 29.

Brandon Phillips, who drove in 10 runs over his last five games prior to the break, was 3 for 6 off Liriano earlier this season, while Russell Martin is 7 for 16 lifetime off Leake.

Pittsburgh leads the season series 6-4.

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