Starter Francisco Liriano has been a stopper for the Pirates all season, going 6-2 in outings following a Pirates loss.
But when pitching after his own ugly performances, Liriano has been even more dangerous.
The left-handed pitcher, scheduled to start today, has allowed four earned runs or more on six separate occasions this season. And in the six starts following those lackluster performances, Liriano has pitched like a Cy Young contender.
"I'm trying to figure some of that out myself because that hasn't been the case with Francisco throughout his career," manager Clint Hurdle said. "So he's actually paved some new road for himself."
Liriano is a combined 5-1 with a 1.05 ERA in those six starts. He has not allowed more than two earned runs and has pitched at least six innings in those follow-up starts.
On May 27, Liriano allowed four earned runs in five innings. On June 1, he allowed one earned run over six. He gave up four runs on six hits on June 12 and allowed just two runs on five hits five days later.
After allowing five earned on five hits in 4 1/3 innings July 19, he pitched 7 2/3 scoreless in his next outing. Following his worst outing of the season, where he allowed 10 earned runs over 2 1/3 innings Aug. 9, Liriano pitched a one-run complete game.
He allowed four earned in four innings Aug. 24 and backed that up with eight shutout innings. And, more recently, he gave up seven earned runs in three innings Sept. 3 leading up to his start Tuesday in which he gave up one run over six innings.
"He does talk about the importance of slowing things down with runners on base, pitching out of the stretch -- the adjustments he's made there," Hurdle said.
Liriano said he has been able to clear his mind after a wayward start and focus on his next challenge. That hasn't always been the case. He credits his maturity for allowing him to move on.
"If I had a bad start, I was thinking about that," he said. "I wouldn't even get much sleep in. Now, I try to forget about it and move forward. What's done is done. There's nothing I can do about it. So I try to put it behind me and move forward."
It is one of the many adjustments Liriano has made this season to turn him from an ineffective pitcher to a staff ace. He is 16-7 with a 2.92 ERA, and is the likely candidate to be the first pitcher to get the ball should the Pirates make the postseason.
"I think, from my experiences as a player and coach and manager, there are years where players put a foot down," Hurdle said. "They're tired of doing what they've been doing. Somehow they recreate something, they reignite something, they reestablish something. I think Frankie, in a way, coming here, a new environment. ... Maybe in his own mind, he just cleared everything out and said OK, it's a fresh start and I'm going to build something now."
A change has done him good
Even before Pirates closer Jason Grilli missed about a month with an injury to his right forearm, left-handed reliever Tony Watson, pictured at right, had become a go-to guy in close games.
An improved changeup has made him more effective in that role.
Prior to this season, Watson hardly used the pitch. He relied on a sinking fastball and a hard slider and pounded hitters inside at every opportunity.
"He was a little bit more one dimensional," pitching coach Ray Searage said. "Hard inside, fastball and slider. Now, he's coming inside and is able to go away to both sides of the plate on the lefties and the righties. He's also got his changeup, which is keeping the right-handers off balance now."
He threw his changeup 74 times combined in 2011-12. Entering this weekend, he has thrown it 127 times this season.
The changeup has allowed Watson to rely less on his fastball, which has improved his overall command.
"The first couple years, I was a dominant fastball guy," Watson said. "I like to throw fastballs in, so [the changeup] opens up that whole outside of the plate, especially to right-handers. It's still not where I want it to be, but it's still getting better every time out."
He is throwing strikeouts less frequently than he did in his previous two seasons. But his walk rate has dropped even further, which has allowed him to be a more effective pitcher.
In 67 innings this season, Watson has issued just 12 walks -- good enough for a 1.6 walks-per-nine-innings ratio. In 2012, he issued 23 walks in 53 1/3 innings (a 3.9 BB/9 ratio) and in 2011 20 walks in 41 innings (a 4.4 BB/9 ratio).
While his strikeouts have dipped, it's not by much. He is averaging 7.1 strikeouts per nine innings this year, down from 8.9 in 2012 and 8.1 in 2011.
The season didn't start well for Watson, who had a 5.23 ERA in May. But earlier in the season, he started to embrace his changeup as a weapon.
"After a while, they would figure him out," Searage said. "He reinvented himself early in April and started working with the changeup. And it's working well."
One thing that helps his ability to pitch in late-innings situations is that Watson is almost as effective against right-handed batters as he is against left-handers. And in some statistical categories, he is even more effective against right-handed batters.
Watson has a higher strikeout-to-walk rate against left-handed batters (6.67) than he does against right-handed batters (3.67) this season. But right-handed batters are hitting .200 against him while left-handed batters have a .215 batting average against him.
Those numbers closely resemble his career averages, though his strikeout rate against left-handed batters has spiked this season.
Looking ahead: The final home games
The Pirates finish their final homestand of the season this week with four games against the San Diego Padres and three against the Cincinnati Reds.
The Padres entered this weekend fourth in the National League West. The Pirates took two of three games in San Diego last month, though the Padres were 23-9 against the Pirates in the previous five seasons.
The Reds are chasing the Pirates in the division, and the two teams will play six games before the end of the season. The Pirates are 7-6 against Cincinnati this year.
First Published September 15, 2013 4:00 AM