Ron Cook: Liriano disappoints in slumping Pirates rotation



It is Memorial Day. Francisco Liriano, the Pirates' best pitcher a year ago and one of the best in baseball, still hasn't won a game this season after losing a 5-2 decision Sunday to the Washington Nationals at PNC Park. The way he's going, it's easy to think he won't have a win by Father's Day. Or the Fourth of July. Or Labor Day.

"It's hard," a subdued Liriano said after failing to give the Pirates a chance to sweep the Nationals in the four-game weekend series. "I feel like I'm not doing my job at all."

Who saw this coming?

The 0-5 record from a man who went 16-8 last season and received votes for the Cy Young award? The 5.06 ERA, up from 3.02? The 1.50 WHIP, up from 1.22?

Liriano was 8-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 11 starts last season at PNC Park. That doesn't include his seven-inning, one-run, four-hit jewel in his wild-card game win against the Cincinnati Reds on one of the more electric nights in Pittsburgh sports history. This season, Liriano is 0-3 with a 5.97 ERA in seven home starts.

Last season, left-handed hitters batted .131 against Liriano with no home runs. "I don't know if that can be replicated," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "That was just complete dominance." This season, left-handers are hitting .319 against Liriano with two home runs. Nationals center fielder Denard Span did much of the damage Sunday with a double on the second pitch of the game and a single in the fifth inning at the end of a tough 11-pitch at-bat. "He won that fight," Liriano said.

There is no debate here: Liriano has been the biggest disappointment in a Pirates rotation that has been awful all season. Aside from Gerrit Cole, the starters are a combined 3-18 with a 4.70 ERA. The team released Wandy Rodriguez last week -- its highest-paid player at $13 million -- but he was coming off a forearm injury that forced him to miss the final four months of last season. So much more was expected of Liriano. He was supposed to be the ace. He has come up way short.

And you are surprised the Pirates are a disappointing, some would say underachieving, 22-27? The surprise is they are just seven games back of first-place Milwaukee in the National League Central Division going into their holiday game today in New York against the Mets.

"I'm not doing my job," Liriano said again.

Last season really does seem like a lifetime ago. Opening day does for Liriano. He struck out 10 Chicago Cubs March 31 and didn't allow a run in six innings, prompting catcher Russell Martin to gush afterward, "He has the ability to make any of his pitches at any time."

Since then, Liriano has allowed four or more earned runs in six of his 10 starts. None of his pitches are working. The Nationals got to him for three hits and a walk in their two-run first inning, which would have been a lot worse if third baseman Pedro Alvarez hadn't made a diving catch to his left to steal a hit from Kevin Frandsen with runners on first and second. They added two more runs in the fifth on two hits and two walks. In both innings, wild pitches by Liriano allowed a run to score.

"I'm missing my pitches," he said.

"His overall consistency is what's complicating things," Hurdle said.

Hurdle said Liriano has fallen back into one of the bad habits that haunted him before he joined the team before last season. When things get tough, he tends to rush his pitches. "He's trying to find ways to slow it down," Hurdle said. "He knows what he needs to do to have success."

There are no apparent plans to take Liriano out of the rotation. Hurdle will keep giving him the ball, hoping he figures things out. Liriano will keep taking it, hoping for the same thing.

"I've got to keep fighting through it," Liriano said. "I've got to keep working hard. Hopefully, things will go the right way for me."

Liriano's next start is scheduled for Friday night in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. It's nice to think he will get that first win soon. Labor Day will be here before you know it.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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