PITTSBURGH -- One of the biggest questions facing the Pirates heading down the stretch run of this 2014 baseball season was whether or not they had an ace to lead their pitching staff and carry the team when times get tough.
That question may have been answered in a big way Wednesday night when Pirates starter Francisco Liriano put together a brilliant outing against the Dodgers.
Liriano (2-7), who was expected to be the staff ace this season but has been hampered with injury and inconsistency, showed just how dominant he can be when rolling as he pitched 7 innings, gave up only four hits and a run and led the Pirates to a 6-1 win in front of a crowd of 30,785 at PNC Park.
This was the second good outing for Liriano in a row as he went five innings and gave up only three hits and a run in the Pirates 4-2 win over Colorado Friday at PNC Park.
This was also Liriano's third start after missing 19 games on the disabled list with a strained oblique.
Liriano struggled in his first start back against the Reds on July 13 but has gotten stronger each start since and that is an important development as he may be the key to the Pirates' ability to challenge the Brewers and the Cardinals for the division title.
Wednesday night marked the fifth win in six games since the All Star break for the Pirates, who improved to a season-high seven games over .500 at 54-47.
Despite the win, the Pirates remained 2 1/2 games behind first-place Milwaukee in the National League Central as the Brewers beat the Reds, 5-1.
This was an important win on the final day of a home stand because the Pirates are about to embark on a 10-game road trip, though seven of those 10 games are against the lowly Rockies (41-6) and Diamondbacks (44-58).
The Pirates do, however, have three games with the first-place Giants (56-44) during that road trip and the Rockies are much tougher at home than on the road, so it won't be an easy trip for the Pirates to make up ground on the Brewers.
It will be much easier, though, if the Pirates get the kind of pitching they got from Liriano Wednesday and get off to fast starts offensively as they did in this game.
In fact, the Pirates went right to work from the first pitch against Dodgers starter Dan Haren as Gregory Polanco and Travis Snider led off the bottom of the first inning with singles.
Andrew McCutchen then lined out to third base but Haren loaded the bases by walking Neil Walker then walked Russell Martin to force in Polanco and the Pirates had a 1-0 lead.
Snider then scored when Ike Davis hit a sacrifice fly to left field and the Pirates broke open the inning and took a 4-0 lead on a double by Josh Harrison that scored Walker and Martin.
Snider added to Haren's misery in the bottom of the second inning when he hit a one-out solo homer to right field to put the Pirates ahead 5-0.
The blast by Snider was measured 431 feet and was just short of clearing the bleachers in rightfield.
That would be all the help Liriano would need as he shook off some early control issues and returned to the form that made him the Pirates ace a year ago.
Liriano began by issuing walks to two of the first three batters he faced but settled in and struck out Scott Van Slyke and got Juan Uribe to fly out to right to end the threat.
Dodgers leftfielder Carl Crawford was hit by a pitch to lead off the second inning but Liriano picked him off and then retired the next 10 batters.
Liriano took a no-hitter and a 5-0 lead into the fifth inning but Miguel Rojas broke it up with a one-out double.
Any chance of a rally starting ended when Rojas was doubled off second after Jordy Mercer made a spectacular leaping grab of a line drive off the bat of Drew Butera.
The Dodgers (56-47) finally broke through for a run against Liriano in the top of the 6th when pinch hitter Justin Turner singled and moved to third on a double by Dee Gordon.
Turner then scored on a ground out by Matt Kemp, but Adrian Gonzalez flew out to center and Van Slyke struck out looking to end the inning.
Haren (8-8) lasted only five innings and gave up five runs (all earned) on four hits, three walks but he did strike out six.
The Pirates added a sixth run in the bottom of the 7th inning when Andrew McCutchen doubled to drive in Snider for his 63rd RBI of the season.
Snider led the Pirates, who had nine hits, as he was 2-for-3 with an RBI, a homer and three runs scored and he also drew a walk.
The Pirates also got two hits apiece from catcher Martin and Harrison.
The Dodgers, who managed only five hits, were a bit shorthanded for the third day in a row as they were without star outfielder Yasiel Puig and standout shortstop Hanley Ramirez, who both missed the entire series with hand injuries.
Puig did pinch hit in the top of the 8th and walked and then stayed in the game to play the bottom of the 8th in centerfield.
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