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Pirates, Francisco Liriano strut their stuff vs. Cubs

1-7-00 Chicago Sun-Times Employee Toni Ginnetti.....SS

1-7-00 Chicago Sun-Times Employee Toni Ginnetti.....SS

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Updated: August 7, 2013 6:17AM



For the Pittsburgh Pirates, standing atop the National League seemed unlikely when they were looking up from the bottom of the Central Division only a few years ago.

It was the Cubs on top in 2007 and 2008, and they finished ’08 with the best record in the league. But the Cubs had nothing to show for those years in the playoffs.

The Pirates have had good starts in recent years, and what happens to them in the second half — or even by the July 31 trade deadline — will be one of baseball’s most compelling story lines this season.

For now, they continue to be the league’s best team, improving to 53-32 with a dominating 6-2 victory Friday at Wrigley Field that showcased veteran left-hander Francisco Liriano.

His complete game was only the second of his career — and first since he no-hit the White Sox on May 3, 2011. He improved to 8-3 overall but 3-1 with a 1.88 ERA in four career starts against the Cubs.

All three victories have come this season, during which he has limited the Cubs to two runs in 28 innings.

“He’s always been good, but it’s always so difficult to face him because he throws every pitch with speed but the same action,’’ said Cubs catcher Dioner Navarro, who had two of the Cubs’ four hits.

Navarro had an ice pack on his right elbow after getting hit by Andrew McCutcheon’s backswing in the eighth. He remained in the game and was at the plate in the eighth when Starlin Castro was picked off second base after getting the last hit against Liriano, a two-out double.

Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija seemed overmatched from the start, admitting he lacked command of his fastball.

“My ball was up in the zone, and I wasn’t able to be aggressive,’’ said Samardzija (5-8), who has lost three times to the Pirates since beating them on Opening Day.

The Pirates have a seven-game road winning streak for the first time since 2002. Their pitching staff has allowed only 15 earned runs in the last 53 innings (2.55 ERA) and only 16 in the last 67 (2.15 ERA).

“You remember the days when this division wasn’t so good,’’ manager Dale Sveum said.

Now the Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds are not only in command of the division, they own three of the top four records in the league.

The Cubs fell to 11-26 against their division foes, the lowest winning percentage (.297) for any team in the majors against its own division.

The pain could become worse after the likely trades of starter Matt Garza, closer Kevin Gregg and others.

“The Nationals went through some really tough times, obviously had a great year last year, and they still have a nice team,’’ Sveum said of a team that suffered consecutive 100-loss seasons in 2008 and ’09 before winning the NL East last season. ‘‘But we all know it’s not that easy to win, even if you have a nice team.

The Pirates have traveled even farther than the Nats, failing to finish a season above .500 since 1992. But they might have their act together.

“All of a sudden, this and that and you put a few pieces together and guys have career years and [they win],’’ Sveum said. ‘‘The key is for everyone to catch fire. That’s a big piece to all these puzzles to winning.’’



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