Liriano benefiting from extra rest between starts this month
CHICAGO — After 7 2⁄3 shutout innings against the Cubs on Saturday, Francisco Liriano made his way through the cramped visiting clubhouse at Wrigley Field with ice packs wrapped to his left elbow and left side of his broad shoulders. Icing is a typical post-start maintenance for a pitcher, but the Pirates have been particularly careful with their prized lefty.
The enhanced preventative care, a focus for the Pirates throughout the season, is helping the oft-injured Liriano reemerge as a co-ace for the Pirates at the most critical time of the season.
The Pirates felt Liriano was fatiguing in the second half of the season as his command waned, so they elected to give him extra rest going in to his last two starts. After a strong outing against the Dodgers on Saturday on an extra day of rest, Liriano was even better a week later as he allowed four hits, walked three, and struck out nine.
While the Pirates have assigned Gerrit Cole the most daunting task among starting pitchers to close the season, including Wednesday's start vs. the Cardinals and the club's first postseason game, the Pirates have a competent co-pilot in Liriano.
Liriano became the seventh Pirates pitcher to reach 200 strikeouts in a season Saturday, a day after Cole became the sixth — the first pair of Pirates to reach the benchmark in the same season. They give manager Clint Hurdle a rare duo of power pitchers entering the postseason.
“With Frankie, when he has fastball command that's when he becomes special,” Hurdle said. “He was throwing strikes with the fastball, and it just changes the dynamic of the at-bat with the changeup, with the slider. He had it today.”
What happens when Liriano is tired?
Pitching coach Ray Searage said that Liriano, as with most pitchers when their legs are tired, his arm slots drop and his command suffers.
Liriano had a 2.98 ERA in the first half when he walked 3.06 batters per nine innings.
Liriano entered last Saturday with a 4.47 second-half ERA as he walked 4.47 batters per nine.
Earlier this month, the Pirates backed off Liriano's bullpen and between-start workouts. Then, they pushed back his starts. Liriano's legs and command have returned.
He threw 74 of his 113 pitches for strikes Saturday, getting ahead in counts more often than not.
Liriano painted the corner with a fastball to strike out Dexter Fowler to begin the game. He got the fastball inside to right-handed slugger Kris Bryant in the first, another good sign.
Liriano got Jorge Solder behind 0-2 after locating a sinker inside and struck Soler swinging over the top of a slider, stranding a runner on third in the fourth of a then scoreless game.
Only Clayton Kershaw (15.8 percent), Max Scherzer (15.1) and Chris Sale (14.5) have better swinging strike rates than Liriano (14.1) this season.
“My body feels better,” Liriano said. “I have better command of the fastball and was throwing it down in the zone. Better command of the fastball is key for me.”
Liriano is just 10 innings from his career-best mark of 191 2⁄3 innings with the Twins in 2010, and one strikeout off his career-best 201, also in 2010.
“It's the easiest out to record,” Hurdle said of the strikeout. “It only involves two people.”
The strikeout is also crucial because of the Pirates' defensive woes in the infield this season. Note that with Liriano starting, Pedro Alvarez started at first.
Liriano has made four starts on extra-rest in the second half. In those starts he has 2.45 ERA, allowing 19 hits in 25 2⁄3 innings while striking out 33.
“I think it's helped both guys we gave it to,” said Hurdle, who also gave Cole extra rest this month. “They deserve a lot of credit — their makeup and work ethic — in conjunction with what our trainers and strength and conditioning staffs are able to do.
“(We want) to be mindful of the pitches and innings they are pitching … to put them in a position to finish strong that is both what they are showing now.”