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Fastball command sparks Liriano comeback

| Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2013, 7:18 p.m.
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The Pirates' Francisco Liriano pitches during the first inning against the Padres on Monday, Aug. 19, at Petco Park in San Diego.

SAN DIEGO — In September 2012, Francisco Liriano was struggling so badly with his command he was briefly demoted to the White Sox bullpen. The step backward was a move leading to his ascension to ace status this summer.

In the U.S. Cellular Field bullpen last season, Liriano watched teammate Brett Myers command his fastball with an over-the-top delivery. Throughout his career, Liriano had thrown with a three-quarters arm slot and struggled with fastball command. After watching Myers, Liriano decided to experiment with a more over-the-top style and found he had better control of his fastball from an elevated arm slot. In the winter, he practiced the motion over and over, building muscle memory.

The result? Liriano (14-5, 2.53 ERA) has dramatically improved his fastball command this season in making a strong case for NL Comeback Player of the Year honors. His ability to get ahead in counts with his fastball has forced batters to chase his sharp-breaking, off-speed pitches resulting in nights such as Monday, when Liriano struck out a season-high 13 in a 3-1 win over the Padres.

Liriano recorded the most strikeouts by a Pirates starter since Kip Wells struck out 12 on July 5, 2005, against the Phillies.

“Last year I wasn't able to throw my fastball for a strike,” Liriano said. “This year I'm throwing it for strikes, and it makes all the difference. Pitching is all about location.”

Ten of the strikeouts Monday came swinging on sliders and changeups, pitches that look like strikes coming out of his left hand but dive out of the strike zone and below swings. But the strikeouts were made possible by fastballs that stayed in the zone earlier in counts for strikes.

Liriano is throwing first-pitch strikes 58.3 percent of the time this season, compared to a 53.7 percent rate last season, and a 49.4 percent rate in 2011, according to Baseball Info Solutions.

The fastball command has led Liriano to getting 126 strikeouts in 121 innings, his best strikeout rate since 2010. His swinging strike rate is 13.8 percent, the best since his breakout rookie campaign in 2006. The Padres swung and missed at 23 of his 104 pitches Monday.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said it is fastball command that has allowed Liriano to resurrect his career.

“People I talked to (in the offseason) said his slider was the pitch he could throw for a strike,” Hurdle said. “His changeup was his next best command pitch. The fastball, a lot of times, it was a 50-50 deal. His fastball command has improved dramatically. The fastball sets everything else up.”

Liriano was signed to an incentive-laden deal this offseason that guaranteed him only $1 million in 2013. From 2008-12, Liriano had posted three ERAs north of 5.00.

Hurdle praised Liriano's commitment to not only making mechanical adjustments but said he is among the most diligent Pirates in working on his conditioning.

“We believed we could maybe help him to some degree,” Hurdle said. “But he came in with every intent with changing the direction of his career.”

Liriano is having his best season since 2010 and perhaps his best since his rookie season in 2006, when he burst onto the season with a 98 mph fastball, a wicked slider, and a 12-3 record and a 2.16 ERA. But that season was truncated by an elbow surgery, and Liriano never was consistent again until making an adjustment this offseason.

“To me, I wasn't pitching then,” Liriano said. “I was just trying to blow people out. Now, I'm pitching.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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