PITTSBURGH -- Francisco Liriano was again putting up zero after zero, and the Pirates had to be asking themselves: "Are we dreaming?"
It was certainly late enough for nocturnal visions, with the seventh-inning stretch of a PNC Park game delayed nearly three hours by a fierce rainstorm arriving at about the time roosters do their pre-crow stretch. But Liriano's performance was real, if indeed dreamy.
Liriano hurled four-hit ball for seven innings as the Pirates downed Oakland, 5-0, to salvage the finale of the three-game series with the leaders of the American League West.
Justin Wilson and Jeanmar Gomez then each pitched an inning to put the finishing touches on the Pirates' 13th shutout of the season. Although the Bucs have all along led the Majors in shutouts, this was their first blanking since June 18, in Game No. 71.
It started with Liriano, who gave the Pirates exactly the kind of jumpstart any team would need after idling through a two-hour, 50-minute wait.
"It was great," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "He set the tone is what he did. He dominated. His efficiency, his command ... everything. He was on top of his game."
Liriano walked one and fanned six while stretching his string of scoreless innings to 14. Most impressively, oblivious to the trying circumstances, Liriano made his first pitch at 9:55 p.m. ET and delivered pitch No. 90 at 12:19 a.m.
"It's hard," Liriano said of having a starting pitcher's normal routine put on hold, "but there's nothing you can do about it."
Oakland manager Bob Melvin could not deny the complication of the late start. He could deny Liriano's role in his team's quiet night even less.
"I think Liriano had a little more to do with that," Melvin said. "He was pretty good tonight, and we've seen him good before, but his stuff was tough to pick up today."
So the Pirates broke their four-game slump slightly before daybreak.
Liriano was carried to his ninth win by an attack that featured 12 hits, many of them of the clutch variety. Starling Marte, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez each had two knocks, with the latter also driving in two runs.
Significantly, both of Alvarez's hits came off left-handers, first A's starter Tommy Milone, then reliever Jerry Blevins. Hurdle considered those hits the keys to both of the Bucs' scoring innings.
"Pedro showed up so well against the left-handers; that helped connect the dots on offense," Hurdle said.
Liriano just continues raising the bar on his already-compelling comeback. He also raised his record to 9-3 while lowering his ERA to 2.00 in his final start of the season's first half. That is the lowest ERA by a Pittsburgh starter into an All-Star break since 1968, when Bob Veale was at 1.90.
"Yeah, I'm happy with the way I've pitched," said Liriano, quickly summarizing his first half, "and with the way we've all played. We're in a good position to make the playoffs."
Liriano's numbers have been a product of consistency. He allowed two runs or fewer for the 10th time in his 12 starts.
Liriano's career record against the A's was modest (3-4 with a 4.59 ERA), but he did experience one of his benchmark games against the A's last July 13, when he fanned 15 of them, his career high.
He mimicked that dominance Wednesday. It was pretty much downhill after Liriano's fielding prowess quelled a budding Oakland rally in the first. With two on and one out, Yoenis Cespedes hit a troublesome roller to the left of the mound -- which Liriano picked up on the run to tag Cespedes before pivoting and making a strong throw to third to nail Coco Crisp, who had rounded the base too far.
Shortstop Clint Barmes gave catcher Russell Martin an assist on the nifty double play.
"I think Russell kinda deked Crisp a little," said Barmes, pointing out that the catcher had run up the first-base line in case he had to get involved in a play on Cespedes. "He made it look like the plate was left uncovered, so Crisp went around third thinking of going home. But Martin cut back there real quick."
So Crisp had to put on the brakes, and when he tried to return to third, the ball from Liriano's throw was waiting for him.
"They say double plays are a pitcher's best friend, and that one definitely helped me settle down," Liriano said. "I was a little too excited at the beginning."
The Bucs pulled out a rarity -- a four-hit inning, their first in a week -- to present Liriano with a 3-0 lead in the third. Doubles by Marte and Tabata, and McCutchen's single, made it 2-0, and a bit later Alvarez singled for another run.
"We showed what we're capable of offensively; we haven't done enough of that," Hurdle said. "One more hit ... getting to do something at bat rather then letting the at-bat get to them."
Pittsburgh added two more in the fourth on RBI singles by Martin and Alvarez, his second RBI of the game and 60th for the season.
"Just trying to put the ball in play, and keep the line going," Alvarez said. "We did a pretty good job pressing them, attacking them to keep the pressure on."
Alvarez's two hits raised his average to .253. It is the highest it has been since the third baseman concluded the game of May 4, 2012, at .260.
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.