It wasn’t the way Francisco Liriano would’ve preferred to wrap up his triumphant regular season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The 29-year-old lefthander struck out eight and walked only one Wednesday afternoon at Wrigley Field, but the Cubs got to him for eight hits, capped by the game-deciding three-run homer off the bat of Darnell McDonald in the sixth inning. In baseball scout terms, Liriano’s control was fine, but his command within the strike zone was lacking, as Chicago lined center-cut pitches all over the diamond.
Although the loss essentially ended the Pirates’ chance at a National League Central championship, Liriano’s start shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern. Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle confirmed earlier this week that Liriano would get the start in next Tuesday’s NL wild-card playoff, which is all but assuredly going to feature the Bucs and the Reds in one ballpark or the other.
The internet today has been rife with suggestions that either phenom Gerrit Cole get the start (heck, I argued the rookie’s case last week on this very site) or the Pirates employ a piecemeal pitching approach in the wild-card game, featuring extremely liberal use of the bullpen. While I would certainly support a quick hook from Hurdle if Liriano appears to be ineffective at any point Tuesday, I don’t see the need to operate too far outside the realm of conventional wisdom.
For one, Liriano has been mostly quite good lately. While Wednesday’s start was in constant danger of spinning out of control – and eventually did – only one of his previous nine appearances doomed the Pirates to near-certain defeat, a three-inning, seven-run implosion in Milwaukee on Sept. 4. In total, Liriano’s allowed more than two runs in a start three times in the past two-plus months. If he’s wearing down, it’s not by much.
Secondly, even though Liriano’s road results have been significantly worse than his numbers at home, it smells like a fluke. Two very poor starts in the past two months have skewed his away stats greatly, to the point where it would be wise to not take them seriously. Yes, No. 47 has had a couple bombs as the visitor, but he also has been downright dominant three times in recent road starts.
Finally, when considering how Liriano matches up against the Reds, most of the evidence works out in his favor. Cincinnati touched him up for five runs in 4 1/3 innings just after the All-Star break, but Liriano’s other two starts against the Bucs’ Ohio River rivals have been excellent: 14 total innings, seven hits, three runs and 18 strikeouts.
The capper in the argument for Liriano is his stunning platoon advantage this year. Using a mid-90s fastball and a devastating slider, the veteran has held lefthanded batters to a historically-low .131/.175/.146 triple-slash line. Considering the Reds’ three best hitters – Joey Votto, Shin-Soo Choo and Jay Bruce – all bat from the left side, I don’t see a better option than “Frank the Tank” for the Bucs.
Tuesday’s game will essentially be a coin flip, but having Liriano on the mound puts the Pirates in the best position to win.