PITTSBURGH -- There was a stretch on Saturday night when Francisco Liriano looked the part of the pitcher who confounded the Cardinals' offense every time he opposed it last season. He retired 13 straight at one point, allowing just two balls out of the infield during that stretch.
But that flashback to how dominant Liriano had been was snapped with a home run and was actually preceded by an ambush. The Cardinals scored three times off the lefty before he settled in and tacked on more late, setting St. Louis up to weather Liriano's mid-game return to form and even the series with a 6-1 win in front of 30,092 at PNC Park.
"Finally," Yadier Molina said, knowing what Liriano-related question was coming before it did. "Liriano was missing on the middle a lot. We were ready to hit those mistakes."
"He was really good against us last year, and that was frustrating," added Allen Craig. "I think we made some good adjustments today and gave him some better at-bats."
Joe Kelly, who was outpitched by Liriano in Game 3 of the 2013 National League Division Series, was the better of the two in his season debut. He left with the lead, which manager Mike Matheny put in the hands of Carlos Martinez, who, earmarked for the eighth inning, entered this one in the sixth. It was a clear message to who Matheny trusted most at a potential turning point.
Martinez rewarded Matheny's aggressive move by stranding two in the sixth and pitching another clean inning with a three-run lead. Kevin Siegrist and, after Jhonny Peralta padded the lead with a two-run homer, Pat Neshek took over from there.
"I would say it's probably a little different than what people probably envisioned us doing with our club this year," Matheny said of his bullpen maneuvering. "But we're at that part of the lineup, at that time in the game where we needed to go with our best shot, and [Martinez] did a terrific job."
Kelly wasn't thrilled with his individual performance -- "I can pitch a lot better than I did," he said afterward -- but he did limit a Pirates offense that scored a dozen the night before to one run in 5 1/3 innings. There was rustiness to shake off, too, as Kelly hadn't pitched in a game since March 23. His final spring tuneup was washed out by rain in Memphis last week.
"That number at the end of our line is what caused us the most difficulty," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, referring to the 11 runners Pittsburgh left on base. "He was able to make good enough pitches. We worked to create opportunities, just weren't able to cash in at all."
The offense made it easier on Kelly, staking him to a three-run lead before he ever threw a pitch. Five of the first six batters to face Liriano reached base, beginning with Matt Carpenter, who singled, and Peralta, who drew a walk. Matt Holliday drove home Carpenter with a single up the middle. Craig's sacrifice fly pushed home Peralta.
After Molina snuck a hit past diving second baseman Neil Walker, Matt Adams capped the scoring with the fourth single of the frame. The three runs were more than the Cardinals had scored off Liriano in his 24 regular-season innings against them last season. Molina had been 0-for-9 against Liriano previously; Carpenter, 2-for-13.
"They did a good job of when he did give them something to hit, they weren't fouling them off," Matheny said. "They were putting them in play hard."
Molina later registered his second career hit off last season's NL Comeback Player of the Year Award winner, sending this hit several rows deep into the left-field stands. Molina, who had 12 home runs in 2013, now has two in his first five games.
Peralta capped off the Cardinals' scoring with a two-run homer off Jeanmar Gomez in the ninth, his second of the season. In three days, he's contributed half as many homers as the Cardinals had from the shortstop position in all of 2013.
"I felt like I didn't have my stuff tonight, was missing my spot," said Liriano, who had pitched six scoreless innings in his season debut. "Also, you have to give credit to the hitters -- I think I made some good pitches down, and they found a way to hit them. "
The run support made a winner of Kelly in what was his first chance to show the Cardinals he was a deserving choice to fill the final spot in the rotation. He avoided trouble with Cardinals nemesis Pedro Alvarez by walking him three times and kept the Pirates without a hit in five at-bats with a runner to scoring position.
His biggest mess was self-induced when, after consecutive two-out singles, Kelly walked Alvarez to load the bases in the third. Russell Martin followed with a five-pitch walk to push home the Pirates' first run. Kelly stopped further bleeding by getting Walker to ground out to end the threat.
Of the 12 outs he recorded on balls put in play, eight were groundouts, even though Kelly struggled to command his sinker. His changeup also gave him trouble.
"I definitely didn't have all my stuff going for me," Kelly said. "It's the first outing. It will come."
Matheny had Kelly bat with two on in the sixth, hopeful to squeeze another inning out of the right-hander. Kelly couldn't comply, allowing two of the first three batters in the bottom half of the frame to reach. At a pitch count of 107, his night was over.
Martinez, Siegrist and Neshek then combined for 3 2/3 scoreless innings to ensure the Cardinals an opportunity to finish this first road trip with a winning record on Sunday.
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.