PITTSBURGH -- About a year ago, when the Pirates began cruising toward the playoffs with a precise starting rotation the wind in their sails, the offense must have been busy distributing IOUs after every win.
Now they are making good on them.
The latest payment Friday night was made by Neil Walker, whose three-run homer in the seventh turned a one-run deficit into a 6-4 win over the Cardinals on another night the "0" remained in Francisco Liriano's win column.
"Frankie is battling, we know that," Walker said after the 2013 ace's eighth winless start. "But he'll give us the best he's got. Meanwhile, any comeback win is important."
Pirates starters have made 34 starts and earned wins in four of them -- three belonging to Gerrit Cole, and the other to Edinson Volquez. However, the team has a growing total of 15 wins, with relievers -- Justin Wilson on Friday night -- the beneficiaries of the Bucs' delayed offense.
Of the 140 runs the team has scored this season, 60 have crossed the plate in the seventh inning or later.
"I think our guys understand that we're not out of a game, that with the bullpen we have, we should be able to stay close," manager Clint Hurdle said. "We are in a place where we don't feel it'll be an early night any time soon. We're ready to play. We've felt capable of doing more offensively for a while, and that's starting to come around -- from the top of the lineup to the bottom."
Friday night's 12-hit attack was of course highlighted by Walker's three knocks, which also included a run-scoring single for a four-RBI night. But his double-play partner, Jordy Mercer, also had three hits, Jose Tabata had his usual two against the Cardinals and Ike Davis got the scoring going with a two-run double off Michael Wacha in the first.
On the wings of that balanced offense, a crowd of 33,696 saw the Bucs extend their winning streak to a season-long three straight games. Their 16-game winner last season and the unrivaled staff No. 1 entering this one, Liriano went five innings while remaining winless in eight starts. And guess what? The Bucs have won five of those games.
The Bucs had taken Liriano off the hook by rallying to tie it at 3 in the fifth, when Walker's single scored Tabata, who had doubled with one away. That tie was undone by Jhonny Peralta's solo homer off Jeanmar Gomez in the top of the seventh -- Peralta's eighth homer of the season, and fourth against the Bucs.
In the bottom of the frame, the Bucs immediately went after Carlos Martinez, the second reliever behind Wacha. Mercer singled, so did pinch-hitter Gaby Sanchez, and both advanced on a Tabata sacrifice bunt that Walker rendered moot by drilling his seventh homer halfway up the right-field stands.
Walker did so on a second straight slider thrown him by Martinez, whose 95-mph fastball appeared to tie him up earlier in the at-bat.
"[Martinez] knows when he's using one of the secondary pitches, [it] is to get back to a pitch that you want to get him out with," said St. Louis manager Mike Matheny, taking a dim view of the pitch selection. "I'm not going to necessarily sit here and say what that pitch is, but a well-executed offspeed pitch after you do look overmatched on a fastball and you're cheating."
Davis is getting to be known for a pretty productive quality. He has come to bat this season in three bases-loaded situations -- that's a total of nine baserunners -- and has produced 10 RBIs out of them. The surplus, of course, comes from the fact twice he also drove himself in with grand slams.
Davis did only half as good Friday night, but his opposite-field double with two outs in the first did give the Pirates a welcomed 2-0 jump.
Liriano pitched loose with the early lead. Such a setup was automatic last season, when Liriano was regularly magnificent, particularly against the Cardinals in PNC Park. In that parlay, and counting his effort in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, Liriano allowed the Redbirds three runs in three starts, covering 21 innings.
Peralta and Matt Holliday both punched opposite-field singles into right to begin the fourth. Yet Liriano was on the verge of escaping his second two-on jam of the night, but Allen Craig would have none of it.
Liriano hung an 0-1 slider to Craig, who sent the pitch into the Pirates bullpen for a three-run homer and a 3-2 St. Louis lead.
The blow knocked Liriano down another peg from his lofty status of 2013. All of last season, he allowed only one home run with two men on base. Then again, he was taken deep a total of only nine times in 161 innings, while Craig's shot was the fifth he has allowed this season in 40 innings.
Gomez has had an even harder time keeping the ball in the park. Peralta's homer was the fifth off him, too, but in only 22 innings.
Liriano departed after five innings and 96 pitches, while navigating around a 25-minute rain delay. Last August, he went the route to beat the Cardinals on a four-hitter, and did that on only 94 pitches.
"He made more pitches than you want to see in five innings, but other than that, there was a lot of good stuff from Frank tonight," said Hurdle, who evaluated his latest start the same way Liriano himself did. "First three innings, I thought it was the Frankie we've seen in the past. Then he threw the slider that hung in the middle of the plate."
"One mistake again changed the whole game," Liriano said. "At least we got the win. I hung a pitch, and got hurt."
Then the batsmen took over, and everyone got well again.
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.