Francisco Liriano will take the mound to open tonight's game against the Colorado Rockies, as the Pirates return from the All-Star break eager to make a second-half push.
It's no secret the Pirates could use Liriano in his 2013 form -- or at least close to it -- to seize the front end of the rotation.
"I'll try to go out there and go as deep as a I can," Liriano said. "Just try to go out there [tonight], fresh start. They count on me, so I'll do everything I can to go deep in the game."
Liriano has provided just three quality starts in 15 outings this season, but has been dogged by injuries. He dealt with a groin injury coming out of spring training, then went on the disabled list June 10 with a strained left oblique before returning Sunday in Cincinnati.
In his first outing back -- though he had his moments -- Liriano gave up three earned runs and walked six in four innings. He is just 1-7 this season, with a 4.72 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP.
"The first outing is going to be rough, trying to do too much, trying to impress," said Liriano, who admitted afterward his adrenaline was racing too much. "[I'll] just put it behind me. I'm more even now, more calmed down, just trying to go out and pitch, not to strike out everybody from the first pitch. Just hit my spots and let the guys behind me make plays."
Catcher Russell Martin said he saw signs Liriano is closer to that pitcher the club needs him to be.
"I think so. He looked like he had conviction behind his pitches. It looked like he had some sharpness to his pitches," Martin said. "One mistake ended up costing him the three runs. I know he wasn't happy with the start but I felt like I saw some good things. It's good to see him actually healthy and be able to push himself, and not thinking about anything in the back of his mind."
The key, Martin said, is to limit the walks and to just rely on his stuff.
"When he's healthy he's one of the best in the game, there's no question. If he stays healthy and doesn't have to grind through starts like he was earlier in the year we'll be good."
Manager Clint Hurdle rolled out the post-break rotation last weekend. Charlie Morton will start Saturday followed by Jeff Locke on Sunday to close out the Rockies series. Edinson Volquez and Vance Worley fall in after Locke against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Monday and Tuesday.
Gerrit Cole is eligible to come off the disabled list July 20, but there have not been many indications he'll be ready to return that soon.
The back end of the rotation -- Locke, Volquez and Worley -- has been solid with Cole and Liriano trading time on the DL.
Volquez has won his past four starts including a complete game. Locke has had just two wins, but has pitched seven consecutive quality starts, and Worley has produced four quality starts of his five.
"I'm really happy Frankie is back and Cole is coming off hopefully soon. I think everybody is happy," Volquez said. "I've been doing a lot of work and finally feel like I'm putting it together."
Locke carries a 2.89 ERA and .982 WHIP and has looked like the guy who made the 2013 All-Star Game.
"I just feel he has a tremendous feel for pitching. I take zero credit for what he does," Martin said. "He's got a great understanding of what he wants to do on the mound. If I call a certain pitch, the percentage of him executing that pitch is really, really high. Other pitchers just go on stuff or power where they can make mistakes and still get away with pitches that aren't in the right location just because the break on their curve or velocity on their fastball. Jeff is able to make pitches."
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NOTE -- The Pirates activated Starling Marte from the bereavement list Thursday and optioned outfielder Jaff Decker to Class AAA Indianapolis to make room on the roster.
Jenn Menendez firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JennMenendez.