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Pirates' Liriano aims to prove stellar season was no fluke

| Saturday, March 29, 2014, 10:46 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano delivers to the Yankees' Jacoby Ellsbury during the first inning Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2014, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

PHILADELPHIA — Francisco Liriano has been an All-Star. He has been dominant in the postseason. The left-hander has twice finished in the top 11 in Cy Young voting.

The Pirates' Opening Day starter had the best season against left-handed batters in baseball history last year, according to Grantland.com research.

Liriano limited lefties to an anemic .331 on-base plus slugging percentage. That was better than the best work of lefty intimidator Randy Johnson, a 300-game winner.

But in 2014, Liriano will attempt to do something he never has accomplished: author back-to-back quality seasons. Getting Liriano to repeat his 2013 results is key to determining whether the Pirates can produce something even rarer in their recent history: consecutive winning seasons.

The mercurial Liriano has been one of the game's great enigmas of his eight-year career.

He was one of the best pitchers in the game as a rookie in 2006, when he posted 12-3 record and a 2.16 ERA for the Minnesota Twins. Liriano used a mid-90 mph fastball and wipeout slider to finish sixth among major league starters with 5.7 wins above replacement in 2010.

He was an excellent last season (16-8, 3.02 ERA), a key figure in breaking the Pirates' 20-year playoff drought. But in between those campaigns, he three times posted ERAs above 5.00.

Liriano, who is a free agent after this season, said the key to consistency is health. Liriano had Tommy John surgery in 2006, and he is a reminder that recovery from the procedure does not always follow a predictable, linear path. Liriano's velocity did not return to pre-surgery levels until 2010, and his best seasons have coincided with his best velocity. After his bounce-back 2010 campaign, Liriano dealt with a shoulder strain and made three trips to the disabled list in 2011.

“Just trying to stay healthy and stay consistent,” Liriano said is the key to 2014. “I've had ups and downs, and I've been hurt a couple years … (with) my shoulder. It was kind of up and down. Last year, it didn't bother me at all.”

Liriano said this offseason he added a series of shoulder stretches to his workout routine. He said he feels stronger at this point compared to a year ago, when he was recovering from a broken right arm.

“I was way behind compared to where I am right now because of the broken arm, and I wasn't throwing much in the offseason,” Liriano said. “This year, I feel a lot better.”

Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said the key for creating consistency is repeating the mechanical adjustments Liriano made last season when he adopted a more over-the-top arm slot and a more direct path to home plate.

The adjustment resulted in decoding the game's great lefty enigma: By throwing strike one more often, it enabled Liriano's two plus off-speed pitches to play out as strikeout weapons.

“He has a real good idea of what he needs to do out there on the mound, but sometimes he rushes through it,” Searage said. “In the first couple of games (this spring) he was so strong, he felt so good, he got out of himself. We had to calm him down a little bit. It wasn't anxiety. It was over-competing because he felt so good, so strong.”

Perhaps one red flag in 2014 is the 2013 usage of his slider, a pitch some believe places more stress — and injury risk — on an arm. Liriano threw sliders at a 36.3 percent rate, the second-highest rate of his career and highest since he blew out his elbow in 2006. Liriano has said he would like to throw his fastball more often this season.

“We'll address those things if they arise,” Searage said of slider usage. “I want Frankie to be Frankie.”

So if Liriano is stronger than he was a year ago, if he is more comfortable with his mechanics, can he be even better after finishing ninth in NL Cy Young voting?

“You know how he can improve? By being consistent,” Searage said. “By being Liriano … staying within himself.”

Said Searage to Liriano this spring. “ ‘You did it. Do it again.' ”

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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