A season of bounce-backs for Pirates' Liriano

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In the beautiful marriage of Francisco Liriano and the Pirates, it's unclear exactly who needed the other more.

Liriano's once-electric career was spiraling away. The Minnesota Twins had sent him to the bullpen, then traded him to the Chicago White Sox. His strikeouts were down. His walks were up. His ERA soared.

As winter arrived in December, the Pirates were coming off two late-season collapses.

Liriano needed a fresh start. The Pirates needed a left-handed starter to bolster the rotation.

What transpired has wildly exceeded expectations as Liriano takes the mound tonight one win shy of tying his career high of 14.

As resurrection tales of a player and his team go, they don't get much better.

"I was expecting to do good things in baseball. Finally I'm doing what I always wanted to do," said Liriano. "Having these games is like a relief for me."

Once upon a time, Liriano was a hotshot prospect from the Dominican Republic with a dazzling slider and mid-90s fastball.

He was an All-Star his rookie year in 2006, winning 12 games and amassing 144 strikeouts before he needed Tommy John surgery.

He missed 2007 but returned to win just 11 games in 2008 and 2009 combined. The magic returned in 2010 when he set career highs in wins -- 14 -- and strikeouts with 201. He was named the American League Comeback Player of the Year.

But between 2011 and 2012 with Minnesota and Chicago, Liriano won just 12 games in 35 starts and had an ERA sailing north to 5.34.

"I struggled so bad the last two years, it was kind of frustrating for me," Liriano said. "I never stopped working and just thank God for a second chance and having this year I'm having right now."

The Pirates sought a left-hander and agreed to terms with Liriano four days before Christmas.

A freak injury to his forearm delayed the process, but he was a Pirate by late January and began the process of rehabbing.

"At first I thought I wasn't going to sign here. I got hurt the night before I was supposed to get my physical done," Liriano said. "They called me and told me they wanted to get a deal done. I was so happy to be here. Happy for the chance to pitch."

Pitching coach Ray Searage and the training staff got to work to get Liriano back to form.

It took just two starts at the start of the season for Searage to see the first glimmer of what kind of year might be in store.

"He's throwing sliders, backdoor sliders for strikes. Then he's throwing changeups for first pitch, then he'll come back and throw a 94 mile-an-hour sinker on you," Searage said. "I'm like, 'This is going to be special. This is good.' "

Liriano's take is simple.

With his fastball command back, he has the freedom to use his slider and changeup when necessary.

"Now I can use it any count. Before, I used to probably throw more changeups, sliders than fastball," Liriano said. "Now I just use any pitch -- fastball, slider, change -- at any point in the count. That made a difference.

"I think it's command. Pitching is all about location. Having a better location with my fastball makes everything better."

Searage said he and the organization quickly took note of his response to that freedom of sorts.

"Because that's Frankie. If I try to make Frankie pitch like Jeff Locke, we wouldn't have what we got," Searage said. "That's force-feeding him to do something that he's not comfortable doing. Frankie does pitch the way he pitches. So just let him be him. That's what we did."

Catcher Russell Martin walked into the batter's box to face Liriano many times in his American League career.

"I don't remember doing anything good. He had a good fastball. I'd go up there trying to hit the fastball and next thing you know, I'm hitting a weak ground ball somewhere off a changeup or a slider," Martin said.

Martin suspects the switch to the National League has helped his teammate, but that his good health coupled with a good defensive team behind him are also factors.

"For the most part, he's been super-aggressive getting early strikes," said Martin. "He has the ability to have three plus-pitches. Whatever you choose, any pitch is going to be a tough pitch to hit. He doesn't make many mistakes in the zone and he gets a lot of swings and misses because his stuff is so sharp and hitters have a hard time picking it up. He's been making good pitches."

Last week in St. Louis might have been his best start yet.

He was clobbered in the thin air of Coors Field in Colorado in his previous start -- his mulligan, as the team calls it -- but recovered to throw a complete game, including eight shutout innings in a 5-1 win Wednesday.

He entered the ninth inning with just 83 pitches, struck out six, walked one and never looked fatigued.

"That was masterful. From start to finish," manager Clint Hurdle said. "He's embraced this opportunity and this team. It was an opportunity for him to be a stopper and he went out and took care of it."

Heading into tonight, Liriano has 13 wins and a 2.68 ERA with 45 walks and 113 strikeouts.

It has been a long time coming.

"I don't know, everything was different this offseason," Liriano said. "Everything happens for a reason. You never know."

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Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1959 and Twitter @JennMenendez. First Published August 19, 2013 4:00 AM


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