Pirates' Liriano pain-free, eyes start in opener


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- The Pirates are optimistic Francisco Liriano will take the mound Monday for opening day, after he threw a 55-pitch simulated game Wednesday and reported no pain.

Liriano, out less than a week with groin stiffness, said he felt great after the outing and was eager to lead the Pirates into the 2014 season.

"Feels great. Didn't bother me at all. Everything feels normal," Liriano said. "My only concern was throwing from the stretch. It didn't bother me, so [I'm] thinking it's going to be OK. I think I'll be OK for opening day."

The Pirates are being cautious with Liriano, and for good reason.

Liriano is a critical piece of the club's pitching staff and never before had experienced the type of stiffness that forced him to leave a game earlier than planned last week.

Pitching coach Ray Searage said it is too soon to declare Liriano good-to-go until his left-hander shows no signs of a lingering problem. Searage said it is conceivable the club will take every day up until Sunday or Monday to make a final determination.

"It's going to be an ongoing thing. We just want to make sure that he is good to go, then we can keep moving forward," Searage said. "I'm waiting to see how the repercussions of going out of the stretch are. That's where the left leg is more isolated. You don't have that momentum going with you as you do in the windup, so that's the biggest thing."

Liriano pitched three simulated innings at McKechnie Field, throwing his fastball, slider and changeup with a batter in the box.

He fielded grounders, bunts, and twice went through the process of cooling down in the dugout and warming back up.

Liriano, who signed in the offseason last year, started 2013 on the disabled list before his magical resurgence with the Pirates. This former All-Star said being the opening-day starter means a lot to him.

"It's very important to me. Last year I started on the DL so I don't want the same thing to happen to me this year," Liriano said. "At the same time, I want to make sure I'm healthy for the whole year, not for one game. Trying to take care of myself and make sure I'm OK to pitch the whole year. It feels great. I'm happy how I feel. ... we'll see how I feel [today] and looking forward to opening day."

General manager Neal Huntington said there is a contingency plan in place if Liriano is not OK, but that he had heard nothing but positive news from the training staff about how Liriano responded.

"It's a balance between making sure we don't put him in harm's way and making sure we respect his desire to compete when he says he's ready to go," Huntington said. "And we've got to make the best decision we can for him and the organization.

"Obviously, we've got contingency plans in place but we expect he should continue to move forward and, as long as we get those results, we'll be in a good spot."

Volquez happy, too

Edinson Volquez threw 20 pitches in the simulated game, alternating with Liriano. His fastball command looked better and Searage said Volquez has made progress this spring.

"The curveball kept slipping out, but the fastball was down in the zone and the changeup was working good," Searage said. "It's been moving forward. Now, all we have to do is have him calm down in the first couple of innings and we're good to go."

Volquez will stay in Bradenton this weekend to get another start while the rest of the team goes to Philadelphia.

He will fly to Pittsburgh Sunday.

"We feel good about what we've done. I'm ready for the start of the season," Volquez said . "I think I'm pretty close. Pretty excited right now, the way I was feel and the way I have been throwing the ball. I have to carry that to the season."

Jenn Menendez: jmenendez@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JennMenendez.

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