SAN FRANCISCO -- The May-December "marriage" of left-hander Francisco Liriano and catcher Tony Sanchez qualifies as one of the Pirates' more fascinating pennant-race developments.
Sanchez, a rookie with 15 total games of Major League experience, has been anointed the personal catcher for Liriano, a veteran in his eighth big league season. Liriano's rank as the current ace of the Pittsburgh staff makes the arrangement even more noteworthy.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle had double motives for the pairing: a way of scheduling regular games off for primary catcher Russell Martin, and to accelerate the baseball education of Sanchez, rated the Pirates' No. 12 prospect by MLB.com.
"Frankie is a veteran pitcher who knows what he wants to throw and can teach the young man," Hurdle said. "Also, Tony's strength is his ball-blocking ability, and Frankie can be a tough one on chase pitches in the dirt. So it's a good learning curve for Tony to work with a veteran pitcher."
It has also been a success. In Liriano's first three starts with Sanchez, he allowed one run and 10 hits in 23 innings that also featured 25 strikeouts.
When Saturday night's start against the Giants did not go as well -- Liriano labored through four innings, allowing four runs and nine hits -- his catcher took it hard.
"We've developed this theory that I'm Liriano's personal catcher, but I don't think I've earned that yet," Sanchez said. "You've got to have the right outings to earn that title, and if the guy doesn't have an outing like he's supposed to, I take that personally. He and I have taken 10 steps forward, but [Saturday night] I feel like we took a step back.
"We'll just get back to the grind and take care of business, so next time we'll be back on the same page."
"Next time" will be Friday night at PNC Park vs. the St. Louis Cardinals.
Bucs would tab Liriano, A.J. to lead playoff rotation
SAN FRANCISCO -- Afforded by the four-day All-Star Game break to align his starting rotation any way he wished, Clint Hurdle came out of the hiatus with A.J. Burnett following Francisco Liriano. Subsequent off-days have adjusted other tiers of that rotation, but the Liriano-Burnett sequence has remained.
No sense looking too far ahead but, yes, that's the way Hurdle wants them lined up for a possible postseason run.
The Pirates manager subtly indicated a few days ago how good he would feel about those two leading the way into the playoffs. After Liriano and Burnett went seven strong innings each for back-to-back wins in San Diego, Hurdle offered this:
"When they are on their game, they can be a force. And they can beat a good team."
They will come across plenty of good teams even before October. Their next mutual challenge will be the Cardinals, whom they will face Friday and Saturday nights at PNC Park.
"I just like the way we're going about our business, throwing our best two guys back to back," Hurdle said. "We're trying to get something done."
In the final two games of the series here, Liriano and Burnett are following each other for the ninth time. With Liriano having lost Saturday, Burnett was out to prevent their third set of twin losses. Four previous times both won, and two other times they split the games.
First number, last word
23-to-8: Pirates' edge in homers hit vs. homers allowed across the 29 games prior to Sunday's series finale in AT&T Park. The Pittsburgh staff went into the game having giving up an MLB-low 86 homers for the season.
"He reminded me of a hockey goalie. He spent the night in the dirt all over." -- Hurdle, on Sanchez's adventures behind the plate Saturday night, most of which he spent diving for breaking balls thrown in the dirt by his batterymates.
• Of Pedro Alvarez's first 31 home runs, eight came on the first pitch -- and an equal number came with two strikes.
• Liriano (14-6) is the first Pittsburgh pitcher to earn a decision in each of his first 20 starts of the season since Nick Strincevich opened 1946 with a 21-decision streak.
• Sanchez had a little fun with Tim Lincecum before and after hitting his first career homer off the former two-time Cy Young Award winner in the fifth inning of Saturday night's game.
Sanchez's college coach -- Boston College's Steve Englert -- also coached Lincecum in the Cape Cod League. So after striking out in the second, Sanchez called out, "Hey, Coach E says, 'What's up?'"
"Lincecum started laughing," Sanchez related. "So next at-bat I hit the home run and when Lincecum comes up to bat, he's just staring at me, and I go, 'Yeah, I'm going to text Coach E!'"
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.