Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Liriano no ace, but he's Bucs' key

Monday, July 21, 2014, 11:32 p.m.

(Getty Images) 

Francisco Liriano has one win. The Pirates have a whole bunch more, but given Liriano's struggles, how?

Clearly, the Pirates are pretty good.

How good they can be, though, depends mostly on what becomes of Liriano the rest of this season.

He has to be the best pitcher on a staff of some pretty good ones. He has to be the ace, even if he probably isn't one.

“I don't throw ‘ace' around too much,” Pirates catcher Russell Martin said Monday. “There aren't that many in the league.”

Clayton Kershaw is an ace, Martin said.

Kershaw, whose Los Angeles Dodgers opened a series Monday at PNC Park, has surrendered 73 hits and 22 earned runs in 10313 innings, and his WHIP is 0.84. Seriously, somebody need not know what WHIP is to get the idea that Kershaw is wow-gosh great when going after batters from within 60 feet, 6 inches.

Martin said there are “maybe” six aces in baseball, but there aren't six pitchers like Kershaw.

Of course, there weren't six better pitchers than Liriano last season, at least when he pitched at PNC Park as he will against the Dodgers on Wednesday night.

Remember the playoffs? Cincinnati and St. Louis combined over two games for three runs and seven hits off Liriano, who in addition to wins provided the Pirates a swagger not befitting a franchise without a playoff appearance since 1992.

Even if they haven't seen much of it from him this season, the Pirates know what they potentially have in Liriano — and it's something they probably can't acquire (without great cost) before the nonwaiver trade deadline July 31.
“When Frankie is hitting it, not many are better,” said Charlie Morton, who owns a claim to being the Pirates' best starter this season.

Still, even if Morton continues his consistent ground-ball befuddlement, Gerrit Cole returns from injury to recapture his sterling form from the second half a year ago and Edinson Volquez and Jeff Locke keep defying reasonable expectations … nothing is going to hit big for the Pirates like another comeback by Liriano.

He has pitched at least six full innings only once since April 21 and just six times overall compared to 19 times last season, and his pitch counts have been super-sized.

After a groin injury in spring training and a recent oblique strain that shelved him from June 10 to July 13, Liriano recently told the Trib's Rob Biertempfel he finally is feeling good. Still, because he will make only his third start since about a month off, Liriano should not be expected to dominate deep into the game Wednesday, pitching coach Ray Searage said.

There are indicators those types of performances will return this season, however. In his last start, Liriano beat the strike zone with fastballs during the third, fourth and fifth innings. He racked up six strikeouts and two ground-ball outs.

“All his other pitches work off the fastball,” Martin said. “We need that pitch.”

How the Pirates are chasing a playoff spot is remarkable considering that pitch hasn't been a weapon to fire all season.

The Pirates are in this National League Central race. A return to form by Liriano, even for only a couple of months, would be aces.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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