SAN DIEGO -- When Francisco Liriano's breaking pitches are forcing his catcher to block a lot of balls in the dirt, the opposing hitters may be in for a rough night.
Liriano was doing just that Monday night, bouncing sliders in front of catcher Tony Sanchez, but the resulting swings and misses led to a season-high 13 strikeouts for the Pirates' so-called "Stopper," who helped halt a modest two-game skid for Pittsburgh with a 3-1 victory.
"[Liriano's] slider would start belt high, and then I would end up blocking it," Sanchez said. "It's hard to lay off a pitch when it does that. His fastball, he would throw a front-door fastball, and it would finish on the back side of the plate. We had a lot of success with that and got a couple of punchouts with that pitch."
Pedro Alvarez backed Liriano with his league-leading 31st home run as the Pirates defeated the Padres in the opener of a three-game series at Petco Park.
The win is the first in San Diego this season for the Pirates, who bounced back from a 16-inning loss in Pittsburgh the previous night. In his last four starts following a Pirates loss, Liriano (14-5) has allowed just two runs over 30 innings and won each time.
"I just go out there and try to go deep into games," Liriano said. "I don't try to do too much, just go deep in the ballgame, go one hitter at a time and not try to do too much."
Manager Clint Hurdle pointed to Liriano's continued poise on the mound, even in stressful situations.
"He's continued to just be masterful," Hurdle said. "The situations tonight, what shows his growth and one of the reasons he's having the year that's he's having is his ability to continue to pitch in traffic. He did it again tonight."
Liriano set the tone early Monday, striking out the first two batters he faced. The left-hander struck out the side in the second and third innings, and he had at least one strikeout in each of his seven innings. He allowed four hits and walked two batters. The last time a Pirates pitcher fanned as many as 12 in a single game was when Kip Wells struck out 12 on July 5, 2005.
"My last few starts I've had pretty good command, and my pitches have been working pretty good," Liriano said. "When I have command of my fastball, everything else just works easier for me, so hopefully I can continue to do that."
The Bucs' bullpen fanned four more Padres, and the 17 strikeouts tied a franchise high for a nine-inning game.
Liriano's 13 strikeouts were also the most by a Pirates left-hander since Oliver Perez struck out 14 against Houston on Sept. 9, 2004.
"He's got all the pitches he needs," Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia said. "He's got an explosive fastball; he works the inner part of the zone. He can duplicate his arm speed with his off-speed pitches. First time seeing him this year, there was definitely some adjusting that we needed to do."
Alvarez got the Pirates on the board in the second when his single to right field skipped past the glove of Denorfia and rolled all the way to the wall as Andrew McCutchen and Alvarez raced around the bases on the error for a 2-0 lead.
"I'm going off [third base coach Nick Leyva]," Alvarez said. "I just kept looking up to see if he was going to stop me, and obviously he didn't stop me."
Tied with Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs entering the game, Alvarez gained sole possession of the National League home run lead when he belted a solo shot to right in the sixth on an 0-1 pitch from Andrew Cashner (8-8).
"It's just being ready to hit," Alvarez said of facing Cashner. "The guy has good stuff, and he demands that you be ready to hit every pitch, because he doesn't give you too much to hit."
McCutchen had two hits in the contest, giving him multi-hit efforts in six of his last eight games.
Justin Wilson pitched a scoreless eighth before Mark Melancon retired the side in the ninth -- with one run allowed -- for his eighth save.
Tim Powers is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.