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Pirates starting pitcher Liriano emerges as pleasant surprise

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 7:27 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates starter Francisco Liriano pitches against the Brewers at PNC Park earlier this season.

The rain fell, and Francisco Liriano waited.

And waited. And waited.

The left-hander watched YouTube videos and passed the time with his teammates as a thunderstorm and heavy rains passed through Western Pennsylvania on July 10, delaying his 12th and final start before the All-Star break by three hours. Liriano finally took the mound at 10 p.m., and despite the prolonged downtime and interruption to routine, he delivered a superb performance in a win over the Oakland Athletics.

Liriano pitched seven scoreless innings, walked one and struck out six to help the Pirates snap a four-game losing streak. The start before, Liriano pitched the Pirates' first complete game of the season. He's 9-3 with a 2.00 ERA in 76 23 innings with a 1.187 WHIP. The left-hander has eight fewer starts but just three fewer victories than NL wins leader Adam Wainwright, and Liriano's .750 winning percentage is tied for fourth-best in the league.

“I'm pretty happy with the way I've been pitching and the way we've all been playing,” said Liriano, 29, who signed with the Pirates as a free agent Feb. 8. “We're in a good position right now to make the playoffs, so I just want to continue to play like that in the second half, and hopefully, we can be in the postseason.”

Much like A.J. Burnett the year before, Liriano is enjoying a comeback season after a couple of tough years in the American League. Unlike Burnett, this is Liriano's first stint in the NL after spending the majority of his career with the Minnesota Twins.

He was an All-Star in 2006, his rookie year, but after Tommy John surgery and a missed season in 2007, Liriano won just 11 games in 38 starts between 2008 and 2009. In 2010, he set career highs in wins (14), starts (31), innings pitched (191 23) and strikeouts (201) and was named the AL Comeback Player of the Year.

But Liriano's struggles returned. He was moved to the bullpen in May 2012 after starting the season 0-5 with a 9.45 ERA. He was back into the rotation by the end of the month then was traded to the Chicago White Sox at the trade deadline. But by September they, too, had moved him to the bullpen to deal with struggles that included allowing 10 runs and 15 walks in 14 innings over three starts.

General manager Neal Huntington said the Pirates' scouts saw in Liriano a pitcher who still had good stuff but inconsistent command.

“Metrically, we saw a guy that was still getting strikeouts, that still put the ball on the ground enough that we felt a change of scenery and a change of league (could help),” Huntington said. “We saw a lot of similarities with A.J. (Burnett), and I said that the day we signed Francisco, so I'm not jumping on the bandwagon now that he's done so well. But we saw some similarities.”

Liriano originally signed Dec. 21, but the deal hit a snag after he broke his right arm around Christmas. He then signed an incentive-laden contract worth up to $13.75 million plus award bonuses over two seasons.

Pitching coach Ray Searage said they didn't tweak much mechanically when Liriano recovered, a minor adjustment to get his hip pocket pointing toward home plate, thus ensuring a little more turn in his delivery.

Otherwise, Searage said he suggested a change in mentality with runners on base.

“You can see it come out every now and then that when he gets into trouble, he'll try and do things harder or make his pitch better,” Searage said. “He'll try and prove stuff. When I started seeing that, I was going, ‘Frankie, I want you to focus on what's in front of you not what just happened behind you.' ”

Opponents are batting .239 against Liriano with men on base and .246 with runners in scoring position this season versus .255 with runners on and .267 with runners in scoring position in 2012.

“I just try to do the same thing I was doing with the bases empty,” he said. “In the past, what got me in trouble was, when I got men on base, I'd try to do too much and overthrow and be more nasty than I was. It didn't work for me. Now I'm just trying to stay calm and hit my spots.”

The left-hander's command has been solid this season, and while his strikeout-per-nine inning rate is nearly the same this year (9.4) as it was last year (9.6), he's walking nearly two fewer per nine innings (from 5.0 to 3.3), and his home runs per nine has dropped from 1.1 in 2012 to 0.4 this year.

Liriano also lost the four-seam fastball and has, instead, relied heavily on his 93- to 94-mph sinker plus a slider and changeup in the 86- to 87-mph range. He isn't afraid to throw any of them when he's behind in the count.

“He can throw a slider when he's 2-0 or his changeup when it's 2-0, and they can both be strikes,” Searage said. “It gets him back in the count or even in the count and then as a hitter you're going, ‘Gosh, what do I do now?' ”

Karen Price is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach her at kprice@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KarenPrice_Trib.

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