Apr 6, 2015; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Francisco Liriano (47) pitches during the first inning against the Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park. Mandatory Credit: Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
Andrew McCutchen provided late dramatics and Tony Watson suffered a rare letdown, but Francisco Liriano‘s performance was the part of Opening Day that should most resonate with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
In the latest duel between Liriano and Cincinnati Reds ace Johnny Cueto, the latter outdid the former, but just barely. Although Cueto was his usual cruise-control self against the Bucs – seven shutout innings, 10 strikeouts, four hits allowed and one walk – the Pirates’ big lefty was almost as effective.
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Liriano also went seven frames, surrendering just five baserunners on three walks, a single and Jay Bruce‘s fourth-inning solo home run. Much like Cueto, Liriano returned after a 35-minute rain delay in the top of the sixth to cap off his outing in steadfast fashion.
The numbers look good, but the optics were just as promising for Liriano.
The 31-year-old showed off a live arm Monday afternoon, touching 95 miles per hour regularly with his fastball, to say nothing of a sharp slider that proved especially vexing to former Pirate Marlon Byrd, who fanned three times.
Liriano struck out seven Reds in all (VIDEO), looking more like the 2013 version of himself than last year’s model, which battled through equal parts injury and ineffectiveness. He came through late in 2014 with a handful of outstanding starts, but his overall struggles were emblematic of an inconsistent starting rotation that forced the Pirates to settle for a wild-card berth.
Remember, Liriano was one of the most dominant pitchers in MLB in 2013, especially against lefties, whom he shut down in a historic rate to help boost the Bucs to the playoffs. Check out this Jonah Keri piece for Grantland to recall just how good he was two years ago.
Liriano’s combination of a three-quarter arm slot and that nasty slider should allow him to continue to torment lefty hitters for years to come, so the fact that all seven of his strikeouts came against right-handers is particularly intriguing.
Yes, “Papa Francisco” had a few loose deliveries and issued a trio of free passes, but that’s just part of the deal with Liriano. Who knows, if he doesn’t balk in the Reds’ first run in the third, maybe the Bucs even come out on top at the end of the afternoon.
Nevertheless, the way Liriano went about his business Monday had to make Pirates general manager Neal Huntington feel good about giving the two-time Comeback Player of the Year the biggest free-agent contract in franchise history this past offseason.
With Gerrit Cole‘s ceiling still unknown, A.J. Burnett nearing the end of his career, Charlie Morton hurt again, and Jeff Locke and Vance Worley not exactly locks for reliability, the Pirates could use a return to 2013 form from Liriano to give their rotation an anchor.
Liriano himself hasn’t been a bastion of consistency during his decade-plus in the big leagues, but the Pirates need him to find Monday’s level more often than not if they hope to earn their first division title since 1992.