SAN FRANCISCO -- As a teenager, Francisco Liriano wasn't in this town long enough to have left his heart here. If he returned to show the Giants that they should have held onto him and let him become San Francisco Liriano, he missed -- along with frequently missing catcher Tony Sanchez's mitt.
The left-handed ace absorbed a four-run ambush in the first inning Saturday night from which the Pirates couldn't fully recover, dropping a 6-3 decision to the Giants at AT&T Park.
The Pirates also dropped into a flat-footed first-place tie with the St. Louis Cardinals atop the National League Central -- ending 24 straight days in sole possession of the division lead.
"A struggle the whole night. A battle out there. I didn't have my pitches or my location," said Liriano, echoing the "what can you do?" sentiment heard both from his catcher and from his manager.
"My guy, who I'm supposed to be on the same page with, didn't have his best stuff, obviously. He battled through four innings," said Sanchez, further disappointed that his first career homer could not help get "his guy" a win.
And Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, after several questions from reporters seeking deep analysis of Liriano's issues, finally said, "He wasn't sharp. Really, that's all I got for you. He had an off day."
The Bucs fought valiantly from that instant 4-0 deficit, first chasing Tim Lincecum, then pestering a procession of six Giants relievers. Sanchez also added an RBI single, and Jose Tabata collected three of the Pirates' seven hits. But the early hole proved too deep.
The game was gone from the gate. With Liriano not hitting his spots, and the Giants getting just enough of hittable pitches to put them in play, San Francisco batted around in the first for a 4-0 lead. Buster Posey singled for a run, Brett Pill topped a ball down the third-base line for an infield single that scored another, and an infield grounder by Pablo Sandoval made it 3-0. Gregor Blanco lined the inning's fifth hit to left field to end the scoring.
"He had bad luck in that first inning … really bad luck," Sanchez said. "A couple of softly hit balls on hooks, broken-bat hits finding a hole. Once that first guy got on [Marco Scutaro, who singled], it didn't allow him to get into his rhythm from the windup. He was in the stretch the entire first inning."
"It was one of those days when no matter what you throw, they're going to hit it," Liriano said. "I made good pitches, too, but they'd find ways to foul it off."
Even San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy saw it the same way.
"He's one of the best pitchers in the game, and we had some good fortune in that first inning," Bochy said. "Pill's dribbler and Pablo's grounder."
In his shortest outing in, well, 15 days -- since his 2 1/3-inning introduction to Colorado's Coors Field -- Liriano was able to keep the toll to those first-inning runs, while allowing nine hits in four innings, walking two and striking out three. Two starts ago, he used 94 pitches to complete a game in St. Louis; Saturday, he needed 102 to get through four.
It was quite an uncommon game, the first time the Giants had scored as many as six runs at home since a 10-6 loss to the Mets on July 9. As for such an offensive-minded victory, you had to retreat to May 26 and a 7-3 triumph over Colorado.
Liriano may have let his emotions get the best of him. He was signed as a 16-year-old Venezuelan prospect by the Giants in 2000, the same year AT&T Park opened, but had never before pitched in San Francisco. He did beat the Giants in his only appearance against them, 2 1/2 months ago in PNC Park, but this was his true shot at confirming this city's impression that the 2003 deal that sent him and Joe Nathan to Minnesota for A.J. Pierzynski was one of the worst in the Giants' recent history.
However, he only smiled at those circumstances and said, "No. That was such a long time ago. It was just an ordinary game."
Not for what had passed as ordinary for him this season. Even with this defeat, he has a sparkling 14-6 record that leaves him in position for the best season of his career -- even though it didn't even begin until May 11, when he made his first start after recovering from a right arm fracture.
"From the beginning until now," Hurdle said, "he's proven things to people that he probably wanted to prove some things to."
Lincecum had plowed through the Pirates for three innings, striking out five of them. He buckled in the fourth, walking the first two men on a total of nine pitches, but quickly recovered to get Andrew McCutchen on a fly to right and whiff both Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones.
"He gave us a couple of openings," Hurdle said of Lincecum, "but we weren't able to capitalize, weren't able to click a ball when we needed to. We made a little run late, just not enough."
Sanchez led off the fifth by ripping a 3-2 pitch into the left-field stands for his first big league homer. The momentum shift was briefly interrupted when Jared Hughes' wild pitch gave that run back in the bottom of the inning.
A "Sanchez sandwich" enabled the Pirates to hit another gear in the sixth. After McCutchen, who had walked with one away, was pushed to third on Alvarez's double to chase Lincecum, pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez, off lefty Jose Mijares, and Tony Sanchez, off righty Jean Machi, delivered consecutive RBI singles to make it 5-3.
Once again a Pittsburgh reliever, this time Vin Mazzaro, gave a run back in the bottom of the inning, on Sandoval's RBI single.
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.