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STL@PIT: Liriano strikes out eight over seven innings

PITTSBURGH -- Now they can think about winning Game 2.

Trying to defuse the rampant excitement over a five-game series with the Cardinals hours before Monday night's opener, manager Clint Hurdle stood by "the process."

"We're best served by a one-at-a-time mentality," Hurdle said. "You can't think about winning the second game until you win the first game."

That requirement was met in sudden and masterful fashion, as the Bucs stormed to a 9-2 romp over the Cardinals in front of 32,084 -- a PNC Park record crowd for a non-holiday Monday night game.

Pedro Alvarez provided the sudden, ripping Jake Westbrook's first pitch to him for a three-run homer that capped a four-run first. The masterful came from left-hander Francisco Liriano, who pitched four-hit ball for seven innings, repelling every minor threat.

"A great feeling," Liriano said of seeing four runs score before there was even an out. "But it was so early. I had to keep from trying to do too much, take it one pitch at a time."

There's that "one at a time" mantra again. It will work only to a point on Tuesday, when the teams will play two games. One at a time, of course.

Alvarez took over the National League lead with his 27th home run, and another lead change could be in the offing on Tuesday, as this series continues with a traditional single-admission doubleheader.

Monday's victory edged the Pirates (62-42) within a half-game of the NL Central lead the Cardinals (62-41) have held for 91 days.

"The Cardinals are an amazing team. They've been where we want to go," said Andrew McCutchen. "We know they'll give us a good game, fight every at-bat and inning. We have to continue to keep coming out and playing hard."

The fans continue coming out. Monday's crowd, which essentially matched the average house for the previous 15 games, warmly and loudly welcomed the team back from a two-week absence.

"It was a breath of fresh air being back in front of our fans," McCutchen noted. "Felt like we'd been gone a month. It was good to come back home and be able to win like that."

McCutchen contributed the first-inning single that delivered the first run. He made an even bigger contribution in the seventh with another single -- not so much because it helped set up a put-away five-run rally off St. Louis' bullpen but because, as his second hit of the game, it virtually ensured victory: The Pirates are now 19-1 in home games when McCutchen gets at least two hits.

This was hardly the Bucs' most prolific offensive outburst, but it was one of their most efficient -- nine hits for nine runs.

"It's good to have it come together like that. We have not done it consistently -- not as much as the Cards -- but we know we're capable of doing it," McCutchen said. "We've done it before."

In the case of Westbrook, that was a literal observation: On April 16 the Bucs got to him for four first-inning runs, which were washed away by the rains that created Tuesday's doubleheader. The skies offered no clemency this night.

Westbrook invited trouble by walking the first man he faced, Jose Tabata, and hitting the second, Neil Walker. And trouble appeared: McCutchen singled in one run, and on the very next pitch, Alvarez homered for three more.

"I put us in a bad spot against a guy who is throwing the ball real well," said Westbrook, who called his night "a battle."

"That's now how you want to start it off. That first inning just crushed us," he added.

All the anticipation of the divisional showdown became an instant turning down of the pressure valve.

"That first inning definitely set the tone," said shortstop Clint Barmes, who, in consecutive at-bats in the sixth and seventh innings, hammered balls into the distant North Side Notch for doubles, the latter driving in two runs.

Liriano, winning for the 11th time in 15 starts since his delayed May 11 debut, retired the first 10 batters before consecutive singles with one out in the fourth by Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday presented a challenge -- namely, Allen Craig and Yadier Molina, who were batting .485 and .391, respectively, with men in scoring position. Liriano fanned both right-handed hitters on vanishing sliders.

St. Louis' next two hits added up to a run: Tony Cruz, batting for Westbrook, led off the sixth with a triple and scored on Matt Carpenter's single. Two batters later the inning was over, with Beltran becoming Liriano's seventh strikeout victim and Holliday bouncing into a double play.

But St. Louis manager Mike Matheny was in no mood for the proverbial tip of the cap.

"I've given a lot of credit to the pitching lately," said Matheny, whose club is coming off a sweep in Atlanta, "and frankly, I'm just tired of doing that. I'll put our offense up against any pitcher out there."

"I've been watching that for quite a while now -- and watching is pretty much what I've been doing," McCutchen said of Liriano's mastery. "We don't get too much action when he's on the mound. He makes it easy on the defense. It's been a good run for him. He's been tremendous; real consistent."

Baseball people always reference "matchups." Well, the Cardinals do not seem to match up well with PNC Park, where they had been shut out in three of the four games prior to Monday night. Including this game, St. Louis has 28 hits in the last five games played on the shores of the Allegheny.

With Matheny needing to conserve relief arms for Tuesday, Marc Rzepczynski and Fernando Salas absorbed a breakout five-run barrage in the seventh, which featured the Pirates' first outfield sacrifice fly since May 27. It was delivered by Gaby Sanchez, and it was followed by run-scoring hits from Alex Presley, Barmes and pinch-hitter Starling Marte.

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