Quietly, veteran pitcher Liriano one of Pirates leaders this season

Rob Biertempfel
| Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, 8:45 p.m.

BRADENTON, Fla. — An outgoing personality and a love of competition made A.J. Burnett one of the Pirates' leaders last season. But after Burnett's departure, the players are not fretting about who will fill his role in the clubhouse.

This year, one of the club's most influential players again can be found in the starting rotation. He has a different style from Burnett — neither loud nor brash — and nobody will get a shaving cream pie in the face.

Left-hander Francisco Liriano might seem an unlikely candidate to be a leader. In fact, he usually shrugs off suggestions that his teammates look to him for cues. But he does the job just the same.

“The warrior-type attitude (Burnett) had kind of trickled down. But he wasn't the only leader on the team,” catcher Russell Martin said. “Liriano was more of a quiet presence, but he took the ball every time and competed just like A.J. did. You can't replace somebody, but the next guy can do what he can to make his own mark.”

Liriano earned respect by what he did on the field. A broken non-pitching arm nearly cost him a chance to sign with the Pirates and then sidelined him until early May. He finished with 16 regular-season wins, then rang up a stirring victory in the National League wild-card game.

“One thing about Frankie, he's a quiet leader,” pitching coach Ray Searage said. “He'll lead by his actions on the bump. He's helped out not only with the Latin pitchers but also the American pitchers. He's very approachable and very knowledgeable. That's why guys kind of congregate around him.”

During spring training this year, manager Clint Hurdle has matched Liriano with new arrival Edinson Volquez for bullpen sessions and other drills. Hurdle expects that working with Liriano, the NL Comeback Player of the Year, can only help Volquez, who went 9-12 with a 5.71 ERA last season.

“I wanted to get Edinson to hang around a guy who works extremely well and is professional,” Hurdle said. “I think that companionship, camaraderie, bonding and sharing of information is going to help.”

The communication flows both ways as Liriano is not afraid to ask for advice from guys on the pitching staff. Before his first start against the Milwaukee Brewers last season, Liriano pulled aside left-hander Wandy Rodriguez in the clubhouse.

“He asked me, ‘Wandy, how do you pitch to (Carlos) Gomez? Every time I face him, he kills me. So I'm willing to try anything,' ” Rodriguez said. “I told him, ‘Never repeat the pitch. Throw inside and up, and he'll be swinging. He loves to swing. Throw him an inside fastball, so later you can go away with a breaking ball in the dirt.' ”

In the first inning, Gomez faced Liriano with a runner on base and two outs.

“Liriano went one pitch, two pitches, three pitches and he got him (swinging),” Rodriguez said. “He came off the field and told me, ‘Oh, thank you!' ”

Entering the game, Gomez was 5 for 8, including two home runs, in his career against Liriano. That night, Gomez went 0 for 4, including a pair of strikeouts, and Liriano picked up the win.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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