Clint Hurdle will have the man he wants on the mound.
Left-hander Francisco Liriano will be the starter Monday afternoon when the Pirates open their season against the Reds and right-hander Johnny Cueto at the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati.
“This is a gifted pitcher,” said Hurdle, beginning his fifth season with the Pirates. “This is a guy we’re giving the ball to that we believe heavily in, that’s been an anchor in our rotation. When he’s been healthy, he’s been as good as anybody in the National League the last two years.”
Liriano has gone 23-18 with a 3.20 ERA and 1.26 WHIP in 55 starts during his two seasons with the Pirates. That is why they signed Liriano to the largest free agent contract in franchise history in December -- three years and $39 million -- in December.
There has never about a question about Liriano’s ability as he was highly touted when arrived in the major leagues with the Minnesota Twins in 2005 then was selected to the All-Star Game at PNC Park the next season as a rookie.
However, the results never matched up. Before signing with the Pirates, Liriano was 53-54 with a 4.40 ERA in seven seasons, all in the American League with the Twins and Chicago White Sox and most of them interrupted by injury.
Switching to more pitcher friendly National League has helped Liriano but pairing up with pitching coach Ray Searage has made a bigger impact.
“They give you a chance to go out there and pitch and be yourself here,” Liriano said. “They don’t push you to do anything. If you have an idea that you think can make you get better, they let you do it.”
Liriano will become the first Pirates pitcher to start consecutive openers since Oliver Perez in 2005-06.
Cueto is 18-4 with a 2.21 ERA in 27 career starts against the Pirates and was 5-0 with a 1.86 ERA in six outings last season when he won 20 games. Liriano, though, beat Cueto in the memorable 2013 NL wild card playoff game at PNC Park.
“It’s nice but I’m not going to be trying to do too much,” Liriano said of his approach to opening day. “Go out, have fun and try and do my job. We’ve got a good rotation. It means a lot to me, to know they believe in me and want me to pitch the opener.”