Liriano turns out to be Pirates' unexpected ace


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There are a lot of things the Pirates front office did right this offseason, and this season, to improve the roster and put a playoff-caliber team on the field. None may have been bigger than having the foresight to project left-handed starter Francisco Liriano would have a bounce-back season and become the staff ace.

OK, so the second part of that is a stretch. As manager Clint Hurdle admitted Saturday, while the Pirates believed Liriano could be a solid addition to the rotation when they signed him in the offseason, they had no idea he would be this good.

But how could they foresee that when he was coming off back-to-back seasons with an ERA of 5.00 or higher and was so ineffective in 2012 that the Twins and White Sox gave up on him?

Add in that he was injured to start the year after an offseason incident in which he broke his arm, and there is no doubt Liriano has to be considered one of the best comeback stories in all of baseball.

"I think everything happens for a reason," Liriano said. "I broke my arm, I didn't think I was going to play this year, so I am surprised by the year I have had. I just thank God for the opportunity and the Pirates to give me a chance to pitch. It has been amazing for me and I am thankful."

Hurdle said the offseason discussions about Liriano, who will start today in a pivotal National League Division Series Game 3 against the Cardinals at PNC Park, were that he could be a nice addition if healthy and that a change in scenery might help.

But Liriano has exceeded even the most optimistic projections, which Hurdle said is a testament to the way he has approached this season and how hard he has worked.

"I don't know if we ever got to that spot," Hurdle said when asked if he or anyone else in the organization believed Liriano would develop into the staff ace.

"I felt from the conversations that I had, the information that was shared with me, that this guy could be a difference maker in our rotation. If A.J. [Burnett] was going to be our 'one,' he could be our 'two.' Where that two went, how high it played, I don't think any of us knew. We knew the challenges that would be in front of him based on past performance. We felt confident a new opportunity, new league, bounce-back opportunity, all those things we factored in."

Regardless of what the Pirates thought Liriano would be, he is why they believe they have the edge in Game 3 of a best-of-five series that is tied, 1-1.

Liriano -- who was 16-8 in the regular season and pitched masterfully Tuesday to lock down the Cincinnati Reds and lead the Pirates to a win in the wild-card game -- has been especially excellent at PNC Park, where he was 8-1 in the regular season and posted the lowest home ERA (1.47) of any Pirates starter with at least 10 home starts since 1920.

He also has been very tough on the Cardinals, as he is 4-0 lifetime against them with a 1.16 ERA. In his three starts against them this year, he was 3-0 with a 1.13 ERA. He held them to a .127 batting average and .179 on-base percentage.

The only two Cardinals who have even modest success against Liriano are Carlos Beltran (3 for 10) and Matt Holliday (4 for 10), whose double is the only extra-base hit of their seven.

Liriano said he doesn't try to do anything special or have a magic formula to stop the Cardinals.

"I try not to do too much," he said. "They have a pretty good lineup, so I try to go out there and try to execute some pitches and use whatever is working for me that day, try to mix some of my pitches in and out."

Manager Mike Matheny said Liriano's success isn't unique to the Cardinals, and that they hopefully will be able to put together a good game plan against him today.

"Every time we have faced somebody, if we haven't learned something or put together a better purpose, then shame on us," Matheny said. "The guys have worked hard to try and get ahead of it and we're going to continue to do so. We understand he's a good pitcher. We also realize we have a good lineup. It is just a matter of us staying within what our game plan is and it comes down to execution."

pirates

Paul Zeise: pzeise@post-gazette.com, Twitter @paulzeise or 412-263-1720. First Published October 6, 2013 4:00 AM


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