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Starkey: Liriano: 'Everything happens for a reason'

| Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starter Francisco Liriano talks to Starling Marte in the dugout during a game against the Reds on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano talks to Starling Marte in the dugout during a game against the Reds on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2013, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.

CINCINNATI — Whenever the baseball road takes an unexpected turn — as it does often during a six-month, 162-game season — Pirates manager Clint Hurdle is known to say, “I didn't have that.”

Example: Nobody had Jordy Mercer hitting an inside-the-park home run and a triple for the Pirates' JV team Sunday at Great American Ball Park.

Similarly, nobody of sound mind had the Pirates winning 95 games this season. Except for Hurdle, who, unsolicited, tossed out that number in spring training. He laughed about it Sunday, saying, “We're not going to get there” two hours before his 93-win team took the field.

Nobody had this, either, when spring training opened: Francisco Liriano regaining his 2006 form and establishing himself as a solid choice to start the Pirates' first playoff game in 21 years.

“Kind of a magical story,” Hurdle said.

Miraculous is more like it.

Flash back to Christmas Day. Liriano and the Pirates had agreed on a free-agent contract. He was scheduled to fly to Pittsburgh the next morning. Then, he smashed his right (non-pitching) arm into a door while playfully attempting to startle his children at home in the Dominican Republic.

Anybody have that?

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington hoped Liriano's agent was joking when he called with the bad news. The deal was nixed. Coming off an awful season, Liriano wondered if anyone would want him. The Pirates wondered if they could sign him to a reworked contract, laden with incentives.

“Were there times we felt like it wasn't going to get done? Absolutely,” Huntington recalled Sunday.

Liriano finally relented. He joined the rotation in May and proceeded to post his best season since 2006 and one of the best seasons ever for a Pirates left-hander (nobody had that).

Fresh off a bullpen session Saturday, Liriano smiled as he recounted his wild ride — starting with the broken arm.

“It surprised me a lot,” he said. “But everything happens for a reason. Things happen in your life. You have to find a way out of it.”

Rumor had it that Liriano might wind up back in Minnesota, where he'd lit up the baseball world with a fabulous rookie season in 2006. Was he close to re-signing with the Twins after a stint with the White Sox?

“No, no, not at all,” Liriano said. “I wasn't thinking of going anywhere. I was at home waiting for a call because I broke my arm. But, like I said, everything happens for a reason. I'm happy it turned out this way.”

Happier still to be handed the ball in the Pirates' biggest game since 1992. Liriano appreciates the magnitude of the moment. He knows they don't come around often. He has started only one playoff game — Game 1 of the 2010 ALDS against the Yankees, who rocked him for six hits and four earned runs in 5 23 innings.

Two weeks ago, Pirates management pegged Liriano as its choice to start the playoffs.

“It means a lot,” Liriano said. “Anybody would want to be in that position.”

What a tantalizing matchup: Liriano vs. Johnny Cueto. Both men love to pitch at PNC Park. Liriano allowed more than two earned runs just once in 11 home starts. Cueto is 8-2 with a 1.90 ERA all-time at PNC.

There has to be concern on both sides, as well. Cueto has made only two starts since coming off a triceps injury that kept him out nearly three months. Liriano was not good in his last start, in Chicago, and has periodically blown up early over the past month or so — showing the lack of command that undid many of his recent seasons.

Still, at home facing a team with potent left-handed bats, Liriano absolutely is the right choice. Every team has the same game plan against him. It's just not easy to execute.

“We have to lay off the pitches that we understand are gonna be balls,” said Reds third baseman Todd Frazier. “But it's pretty tough because he has that changeup and that slider and that sneaky fastball.”

In his most recent start against the Reds, on Sept 20, Liriano told pitching coach Ray Searage he was done after eight innings and 94 pitches. That seemed somewhat curious — it wasn't exactly an A.J. Burnett moment — but Liriano and Hurdle believe it was the right call, even though the Reds staged an incredible rally to win the game.

“I think I had enough,” Liriano said. “I threw enough pitches. We have a great bullpen, so I don't think we have to go and try to do too much.”

No, just a typical home outing should do on Tuesday night. It should at least give the Pirates a chance to win the game and move into the second round of the playoffs.

Anybody have that?

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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