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PIT@NYM: Liriano strikes out nine in Pirates debut

NEW YORK -- The Pirates had been waiting for Francisco Liriano, waiting for him to pitch, to supplement their rotation, to add a dash of left-handedness to their recipe and some experience to the team resumé. They waited through Spring Training and through 35 regular-season games for him to recover, rehab and remind them why they signed him as a free agent. And after the wait ended Saturday afternoon, Liriano almost qualified as an afterthought.

Not every day do these Pirates score double-digit runs; they've been waiting for offense as well. So when it made a conspicuous appearance Saturday, it partially obscured a most encouraging performance by their new man. Liriano was quite the winning pitcher in the Bucs' 11-2 victory over the Mets. Not only was he the pitcher of record in the team's second straight lopsided victory against a seemingly dispirited opponent, but he also won himself a more prominent place in the Pirates' plans for the immediate future.

"He made himself a popular addition right away," manager Clint Hurdle said.

At the same time, the victory was primarily a matter of offense. The 11 runs and 16 hits -- four by Jose Tabata -- that served as a welcome wagon for Liriano, were season highs. The margin for victory was the largest this season.

Part of that disparity, of course, was the effective pitching of Liriano and his three followers. Making his National League debut, the former Twins starter overmatched the Mets for 5 1/3 innings, striking out nine, and allowing six hits, five of them singles. He walked two. His relief allowed one hit, a home run, following a 47-minute rain delay in the ninth inning, by Andrew Brown, and no walks and struck out seven more.

The only other Mets baserunner was Jordanny Valdespin, a "Hey, look at what I did" rookie who had Cadillacked around the bases after hitting a benign home run in the ninth inning of the Pirates' 7-3 victory Friday night. Liriano's replacement, Bryan Morris, hit Valdespin in the right forearm in the seventh. That purpose pitch prompted zero retaliation from the Mets who, by and large, don't abide by the rookie's behavior.

Liriano, now a .500 career pitcher (54-54) said he had to overcome "feeling a little weird." Though he had made five rehab starts and pitched 21 2/3 innings, the start Saturday was his first against a big league opponent since Sept. 25.

"I tried not to get too excited," Liriano said. "I didn't want to try to do too much."

His changeup was particularly effective; his slider seemed midseason sharp. Hurdle noted Liriano threw his secondary pitches in fastball counts, saying, "And he had enough fastball in case they were sitting soft."

Liriano had a 4-0 margin for error before the Mets had turned over their batting order. Tabata provided the game's most critical hit, a two-run home run against losing pitcher Jon Niese in the third. Tabata had singled as part of a rally that produced the first run in the second, and he doubled and scored in the fifth, when the Pirates scored five times and forced Niese from the mound. Tabata scored for the fourth time in the seventh following a single.

His home run was one of three by the Pirates. Two came from Jordy Mercer, the understudy for regular second baseman Neil Walker, who is due to come off the disabled list Monday after playing in a Double-A doubleheader Sunday. Mercer hit his first in fifth inning. His second, and third overall on the year, was a rocket off the facing of the upper deck in left-center in the eighth.

It provided appropriate punctuation -- exclamation point -- for an encouraging victory that put the Pirates' record four games over .500 again. The Bucs have accomplished what most teams hope to accomplish in a four-game road series -- two victories with chance for a third.

How great a chance is open to debate. The Mets starter Sunday is Matt Harvey, the latest NYC phenom, one who appears to be quite the real deal.

Harvey is unbeaten with four victories and a 1.28 ERA in seven starts. The Mets have won six of those starts. His most recent start produced nine nearly perfect shutout innings and 12 strikeouts against the White Sox. He comes with credentials, precision pitches and spine.

"I'm looking forward to seeing him pitch," Hurdle said.

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