Starter Liriano impressive again as Pirates blank Cubs

Travis Sawchik
| Wednesday, May 22, 2013, 10:27 p.m.

The last time Francisco Liriano pitched this well, Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija was a 1,000-yard wide receiver for Notre Dame.

Fished out of baseball's bargain bin this offseason, Liriano pitched like the lefty who torched the American League in 2006 prior to elbow surgery, out-dueling Samardzija in a 1-0 Pirates' win Wednesday.

Liriano, who was one of baseball's most promising pitchers before Tommy John surgery in 2006, continues to look like one of baseball's best free-agent bargains. He shut out the Cubs over seven innings at PNC Park, allowing just two hits and a walk while striking out nine.

After breaking his arm in an accident this offseason following an up-and-down 2012, Liriano (3-0) was guaranteed just $1 million plus incentives. But thanks to a slight mechanical tweak that has improved his command, he's pitched like an eight-figure-a-year starter, allowing two runs over his first 18 innings as a Pirate while striking out 25 compared to only six walks.

On Wednesday at PNC Park, Liriano baffled Cubs hitters with two swing-and-miss off-speed pitches and showcased better command of his low- to mid-90s fastball than he had in recent years while with the Twins and White Sox.

The key with Liriano always has been command.

“When he gets ahead with his fastball the other stuff plays up dramatically,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “That's what he was able to do tonight better than his last two outings. That's why he was able to go seven.”

Last season when he was briefly demoted to the White Sox bullpen, he watched reliever Brett Myers pound the strike zone with an over-the-top delivery. Liriano decided to adopt the motion, slightly raising the release point from the three-quarters delivery he had used dating to his time with the Twins.

“I'm just going over my head and not trying to overthrow,” Liriano said. “Sometimes I'd try to over throw and I got in trouble”

The adjustment appears to be paying major dividends.

For his career, Liriano has thrown his fastball for strikes only 55 percent of the time. But in his first two starts, Liriano threw his fastball for strikes at a 68-percent clip. He also had impressive command while rehabbing when he walked only four — and struck out 33 — in 21 innings.

Liriano threw 15 of his 26 first pitches for strikes Wednesday and walked just one.

“When he has fastball command those are the games that are electric for him,” Hurdle said.

Liriano's other marked improvement is with his changeup.

Opponents swung and missed at Liriano's changeup 53.3 percent of the time in his first two starts, and the changeup continued to be weapon Wednesday.

Liriano got Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo to swing and miss for strikeouts twice on changeups. Alfonso Soriano swung and missed at a changeup to begin the fourth and watched a changeup paint the corner in the sixth for another strikeout.

“Pitching ahead makes it a lot easier,” Liriano said. “I'm mixing up all my pitches but I'm using more of my changeup than I did last year.”

While the velocity is not what it was pre-Tommy John, Liriano's fastball is averaging 93 mph and in line with his velocity from his 2010 season, his one outstanding campaign post-surgery.

Liriano always has had success against the National League; he is 12-5 against NL teams for his career.

Samardzija was nearly as good as Liriano.

The Pirates always have struggled against Samardzija, who entered with 0.92 career ERA against the club. Samardzija baffled the Pirates on Opening Day when he didn't allow a run and yielded just two hits over eight innings. Samaradzija allowed just one run and three hits in seven innings Wednesday.

The Pirates' only damage came in the first when Andrew McCutchen lined a double to left, and Garrett Jones followed with a two-out RBI single. McCutchen also doubled in the fourth, slashing a 98 mph Samardzija fastball off the right-field wall. McCutchen continues to warm up, producing his fourth multi-hit game in his last five.

They were the only three hits the former Notre Dame receiver allowed. But with Liriano recapturing his 2006 form, it was all that was required.

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