Francisco Liriano continued his torrid start, scattering two hits over seven innings and the Pittsburgh Pirates edged the Chicago Cubs 1-0 on Wednesday night.
Liriano (3-0) struck out nine and walked just one to remain unbeaten since making his season debut against the New York Mets two weeks ago. Mark Melancon survived a bumpy ninth inning for his first save of the season.
Andrew McCutchen doubled twice for the Pirates and scored the game's only run on an RBI single by Garrett Jones in the first. Pittsburgh has won 10 of 12 to move 10 games over .500 (28-18).
Chicago's Jeff Samardzija (2-6) nearly matched Liriano pitch for pitch, giving up just three hits in seven innings, but received no help. The Cubs have dropped four of five.
The Pirates agreed to terms with the former All-Star in December, but Liriano signed a more incentive-laden deal after breaking his right (non-throwing) arm in a freak accident on Christmas Day.
It's certainly looking like a bargain now. The left-hander has spent most of the five seasons attempting to regain the form he showed as a 22-year-old phenom with the Minnesota Twins in 2006, when he went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and made the All-Star team on his way to finishing third in American League Rookie of the Year voting.
His path to stardom was sidetracked by Tommy John surgery in 2007, though he appears to have found a home in Pittsburgh.
Mixing his offspeed stuff with a rejuvenated fastball refined by a tweak to his delivery, Liriano has joined A.J. Burnett and Wandy Rodriguez in giving the Pirates a respectable top of the rotation.
He was solid in his first two starts in wins over the Mets and Milwaukee. He was spectacular at times against the Cubs. He retired 14 of 15 batters at one point and managed to expertly wiggle out of the lone spot of trouble in the third when the Cubs loaded the bases with no outs following a Cody Ransom single, a walk and an error.
In a way, Liriano had the Cubs right where he wanted them.
Chicago began the night hitting just .218 with runners in scoring position, the second-lowest in the majors. The number dropped a bit more after Julio Borbon hit into a fielders' choice, Starlin Castro struck out and Anthony Rizzo flew out to right to end the threat.
No Cub made it to third base over Liriano's final four innings and Pittsburgh's bullpen made it hold up even with closer Jason Grilli given the night off after laboring through a 34-pitch save on Tuesday.
The Pirates improved to 26-0 when leading after eight innings while Samardzija's tough luck continued.
The right-hander has been lights out against the Pirates during his career. He came in 4-0 against them, including a dazzling eight innings of work in a 3-1 Chicago win on opening day.
Samardzija might have been even better this time around. His only miscue came in the first when McCutchen doubled with two outs and Jones followed with a single to right.
It turned out to be all the cushion Liriano would need. Tony Watson worked the eighth and Melancon — typically the setup man — came in for the ninth looking for his first save since Aug. 26, 2012, while playing for the Boston Red Sox.
The Cubs made him work for it. Soriano reached on strikeout-wild pitch and Wellington Castillo singled with one out. Nate Schierholtz and Darwin Barney both lofted weak fly balls to shallow right field that Pittsburgh second baseman Neil Walker corralled with ease.