Pirates pitcher Liriano sets lofty goal for innings

Rob Biertempfel
| Monday, Feb. 22, 2016, 9:33 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — It has been almost a quarter of a century since a Pirates pitcher started three consecutive season openers.

With Cy Young Award pedigree, Doug Drabek was on the mound for the first game in 1990, '91 and '92. The right-hander is one of only six pitchers in franchise history to work three in a row.

This season, lefty Francisco Liriano could join the club. Liriano started and got no-decisions in the 2014 opener against the Chicago Cubs and in '15 against the Cincinnati Reds.

Will Liriano start April 3 against the St. Louis Cardinals at PNC Park? Or will the honor go to Gerrit Cole, who was manager Clint Hurdle's choice for the wild-card game last October?

On Monday, Hurdle smiled at the question.

“We'll figure that out as we go,” Hurdle said.

With only four spring training workouts in the book, Hurdle thinks it's too early to talk out loud about the opener. Then again, it has been four days since the San Diego Padres named Tyson Ross their guy.

“Whatever (Hurdle) does, I'm OK with it,” Liriano said with a shrug.

“I'm not thinking about that now. I'm just trying to get myself ready. Whatever happens, happens.”

An 11-year veteran, Liriano has been a top-end pitcher the past three seasons in Pittsburgh.

In 86 starts for the Pirates, he is 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA and a 1.24 WHIP. Those numbers are better than what he put up over the previous eight seasons with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox.

One rap against Liriano is he never has been an innings-eater. He has worked 185-plus innings in just two seasons.

“This year, my goal is to throw at least 200 innings,” he said. “You've got to learn from your mistakes and see what you can do to get better. I want to throw fewer pitches per inning so I can throw at least 200 innings.”

Liriano last season racked up 186 23 innings, five shy of the career high he set in 2010.

Oddly enough, one reason for Liriano's increased output might have been that he received extra rest late in the season.

“One of the things we've had to help him with is sometimes we're better served by him catching his breath,” Hurdle said. “It wasn't easy, initially, talking him into taking that blow late in the season. Once he did it, with the way he felt afterword, I think (Liriano realized) … we're not just making stuff up. We're doing this for a reason. I think he has a better feel for it going into this year.”

Liriano turned 32 in October, so extra down time can be good for his arm. Even his spring training routine this year has been toned down.

“You change a little bit when you get older,” Liriano said. “I throw fewer bullpens than I used to throw and play catch less. I don't try to do everything in one day. I try to take it easy and get myself ready for Opening Day. When I don't try to do too much, my body recovers better.”

It's also good to take a mental break.

“He's a guy who critiques everything,” Hurdle said. “He's very stern with himself, and sometimes that can take a little steam out of a guy. Giving him a chance to take some time off and see where it goes, I think it freshens him up.”

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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