A Detailed Look at Francisco Liriano: The Stopper

Francisco Liriano Pitching

The Pirates needed Francisco Liriano to be a stopper, and he came up huge. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Last night’s loss was a tough loss. The Pirates were coming off a three game sweep against the Colorado Rockies. They had a three game lead in the NL Central over the St. Louis Cardinals, with a big three game series against the Cardinals coming up. Taking the first game against St. Louis would send a message. The Pirates came close to sending that message, up until a rare error by Starling Marte sent the game to extra innings. The Pirates had opportunities to close it out, but couldn’t come up with the win, and eventually lost in the 14th inning, sending their losing streak to four games.

It wasn’t the first time the Pirates had a four game losing streak. In fact, it was the third time this year, and they’ve never extended a losing streak beyond that. They certainly couldn’t afford to start now against the Cardinals. With the Wild Card round reduced to a one game play-in, winning the division is so important. These games against the Cardinals are extremely important for that purpose. The Pirates needed a shift in momentum back in their direction. They needed a stopper.

Fortunately it was Francisco Liriano’s day to pitch.

The History of the Stopper

Liriano has been called on before in these types of big roles. Prior to tonight’s game, he had four appearances where he was called upon to prevent a losing streak. Three of those games followed the Pirates losing 2+ games in a row. The other game followed three losses in the last four games. And each time he came up huge.

Friday, June 7th

The Pirates were coming off three losses in a row, and five of their last six to start the month of June. Liriano took the mound against the Chicago Cubs on the road, which isn’t the most difficult opponent this year, but can be a difficult stadium. He stepped up with seven shutout innings, allowing two hits, five walks, and striking out eight. The Pirates won 2-0. That stopped the losing streak, and the Pirates went on to go 7-5 over the next few weeks before starting a nine game winning streak.

Wednesday, July 10th

The previous Friday, Liriano beat the Cubs on the road once again. After that win, the Pirates dropped four straight games for the second time this season, dropping them out of first place in the NL Central and sparking the first fears of a collapse. Or the second or third. It’s hard to keep track. Liriano took the mound against the Oakland Athletics at home, after the Pirates lost two games in a row to the A’s. Once again, he came up big, throwing seven shutout innings, allowing four hits, one walk, and six strikeouts to lead the Pirates to a 5-0 win.

Monday, July 29th

It was only a few weeks ago that the Pirates were in a similar situation to the one they’re in now. They were coming off a few losses to bad teams, and facing the Cardinals in a huge five game series at home. Heading into the series the Pirates lost three of their last four games, including two of three to the Marlins. Liriano took the mound in game one against the Cardinals, and once again he delivered. The lefty threw seven innings, giving up one run on four hits and two walks, with eight strikeouts. The Pirates won 9-2, took three of the next four games from St. Louis, and took control of the NL Central.

Saturday, August 3rd

The Pirates lost the last game of the St. Louis series, then the first game of a series with the Colorado Rockies. A two game losing streak isn’t much, but once again winning the division is extremely important, and the Pirates only had a half game lead. So once again, it was up to Liriano to get the team trending in the right direction. You can probably guess what happened. Seven shutout innings, two hits, five walks, and six strikeouts led the Pirates to a 5-2 victory. That started a five game winning streak, which combined with the continued losing by the Cardinals gave the Pirates a four game lead.

The Biggest Stop of All

The Pirates aren’t going to collapse this year. They’re going to make the playoffs. But whether they make the playoffs as a Wild Card team or the NL Central champs is up in the air. Once again, with a one game Wild Card round, winning the division is the priority. So losing four games in a row with two more to play against St. Louis, and a two game lead in the Central was a huge moment. The Pirates needed Liriano more than ever. And he delivered his best performance tonight.

The lefty threw a complete game, giving up just one run in the ninth inning, and leading the Pirates to a 5-1 win over the Cardinals with just 94 pitches. He got help from Pedro Alvarez, who hit his 29th homer of the year, and Garrett Jones, who hit his 11th homer of the year. Both homers came in the second inning. The Pirates put up three more runs in the fourth inning, led by the rare hits with runners in scoring position by Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte.

That was more than enough for Liriano, who was extremely efficient. His pitches by inning:

1st: 11

2nd: 8

3rd: 14

4th: 12

5th: 12

6th: 12

7th: 8

8th: 6

9th: 11

Only one inning with more than 12 pitches. No innings with more than 14 pitches. Three of the innings were eight pitches or less, including some huge quick outs in the seventh and eighth that secured the fact that Liriano would go the complete game. Not only did Liriano come through by stopping the losing streak, he went above and beyond this time. He went a complete game, saving the bullpen, which had been taxed last night. He did that on a night where the offense got to Shelby Miller early, forcing the Cardinals to go to their bullpen for three innings to end the game.

It’s hard to judge momentum. You don’t know what is going through the minds of the players. You don’t know how one club will react to a loss, or how another club will perform after an uplifting win. But on the surface it’s easy to see how this could be a huge momentum boost for the Pirates. Aside from the dominant performance by Liriano, everything was going right. The Pirates were getting the defensive plays, after the defense let them down last night in the late innings. The Cardinals were looking poor defensively, with the always entertaining Matt Holliday experience in left field. The Pirates were the ones hitting in runners from scoring position, going 2-for-5. The Cardinals? They were 0-for-1 with runners in scoring position.

Tomorrow the Pirates have A.J. Burnett on the mound. Ace number two. The Cardinals have a good pitcher as well in Lance Lynn, although Lynn hasn’t exactly been dominant lately, with a 4.32 ERA since the start of July. The Pirates needed Liriano to pick them back up, and that’s what he did. Burnett has the chance to match Liriano’s performance, and try to build on the NL Central lead over St. Louis.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • brilemon

    Where are the negative nellies from yesterday? …Bueller? …Bueller?

    Tim et al, thank you for a baseball education the last two years.

    • Bucco_Joe

      They responded better than I would have expected based on Tuesday’s debacle. The pitching was lights out, and needs to continue to be that way since the offense isn’t leading this team anywhere. Another 12K’s is a pathetic showing by a team in playoff position.

      • stickyweb

        They can’t hit with RISP! 2 for 5? Nevermind.

        They can’t score any runs! 5 against a damn good pitcher? Nevermind.

        Ahh, they strikeout too much! 12 more Ks! Congrats, you had to dig deep but you were able to find some bad news. Of course, Liriano was 3 of those in his 3 ABs, so I guess we need to bench him.

        Seriously, if they threw a perfect game and won 38 – 0, some people would complain about Marte getting thrown out trying to take an extra base. Sit back and enjoy people.

        • Kevin_Young

          I agree with you that there’s no reason to really be concerned right now. But you can’t pretend that we do hit well with RISP, score a lot of runs, or that K’s don’t matter. Love the team regardless, but don’t be overly complacent.

          • stickyweb

            I’m not deluding myself, KY. I realize they have problems, as all teams, even the best in baseball, do. And I completely understand fans being upset after a tough loss, and lamenting the reasons for it.

            But it kind of drives me crazy when people lament one of the few bad things after one of the best wins of the year. I mean if you can’t be happy and enjoy last night’s performance, what’s the point of being a fan?

            Of course all of that is in the context of fans overreacting to just a few games in a row, either for the good or the bad. But that topic needs it’s own internet to handle the conversation.

          • stickyweb

            I mean it’s not like we needed a dropped routine fly ball in the 9th by one of the best defensive OFs in baseball to squeak out an extra inning win. That was a very comfortable game to enjoy, more than you’d expect against the team your battling for the division.

  • BostonsCommon

    Anyone notice Liriano routinely touching 95 last night? When he can reach back and still get that, matched with the whipeout slider, he is simply impressive. Just absolutely dominant. There’s no question that he is getting the ball in game 1 of the playoffs, especially if it’s at PNC Park, and ESPECIALLY if it’s against the Cards.

    In his two starts against the Cards, all Liriano has done is go 16 IP, including the complete game last night, 2 ER, with a 14:3 K:BB rate. The best offense in the NL can’t touch him.

    • stickyweb

      The Cards suck against all LHP. I’m liking Locke in a series with them and hopefully Wandy’s back by then.

      • BostonsCommon

        The Pirates match up very well against the Cards. Two strong lefties (three if Wandy makes it back) create obvious match up problems. And look at the lack of success Cardinal starters have had recently against the Pirates, namely Jake Westbrook and Ace Adam Wainwright.

        In his last 5 starts, Wainwright has given up 34 hits in 32 IP, with a 5.06 ERA and .276 average against.

        Shelby Miller has a bright future, but after last night, he’s now 0-3 against Bucs in 3 starts, with 4.08 ERA, and he’s served up 4 HRs in 17 IP to go along with a .300 average against.

        Westbrook’s numbers against the Pirates are pathetic. In his last 9 starts he’s 1-7 with a 5.91 ERA, 69 its in 53 1/3 IP, and a .317 average against.

        I will say it again, the Cards are a good matchup for the Bucs.

        • stickyweb

          Yeah, for whatever reason the Bucs do really really well against almost all of the Cards starters. I’d definitely rather face them in a 5 games series than either the Braves or Dodgers. I think we may need the best record in the NL to make that happen though, so can someone cool off ATL and LAD, or at least give them a decent fight? PLease?

    • buster09

      And if you don’t have Liriano to go against the Cardinals,try running a left hander out there against them. It baffles me that I hear very few of the baseball media people point out how ineffective they are against when facing left handed pitching,or how fairly weak they are defensively.

      • stickyweb

        They benefit greatly from the lack of LH starters in the division, excepting the Bucco rotation of course. And it’s hard to imagine a team that bad defensively making much noise in the post season, especially against a team that has at least 2 good lefties.

      • buster09

        Sticky : Couldn’t agree with you more. By the way,my earlier comment was supposed to say ” try running ANY left handed pitcher ” ,not A left hander. As is well said above,they have their share of problems against most LHrs.

      • http://www.piratesprospects.com Tim Williams

        You must have missed Twitter during the extra innings game when they weren’t bringing in Tony Watson.

        • buster09

          Tim,being a real old guy I don’t use Twitter,but I surely could imagine the eruption as I know what I was doing : jumping up and down,yelling at Hurdle through the HD ! And I had skipped the Curve game missing Polanco’s 3 hits to watch that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    Some famous manager once said that ‘momentum in baseball is only as good as that day’s starting pitcher’.

    Foo

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

    For all the doom and gloomers, we are a dropped fly ball from being up 2 games to zero in this series.

    AND, we are a baffling balk call away from possibly being up 3-2 on this road trip.

    WE ARE A QUALITY PLAYOFF CONTENDER!!

    Foo

    • Bucco_Joe

      We are a quality playoff contender because of the pitching staff. With average pitching this isn’t a 0.500 team with such a swing and miss offense.

  • smurph

    Lee Young and stickyweb pretty much said what I was going to. Where are the Chicken Littles today? They will be back out in force if the Pirates lose today (they won’t). Whining about the Pirates weaknesses. If you watched last night’s game on ESPN, all three announcers said that despite the errors, they would rather have the Pirates defense than that of the Cardinals because of the superior athleticism. Pirates have better starting pitching than the Cardinals, better bullpen, better baserunning and basestealing, more HR power, and at least equal defense.

  • smurph

    Not sure how many noticed, but the Pirates beat one of the Cardinals’ best SPs 5-1 last night with a lineup that had 3 rookies in it. Two of those rookies had less than 30 ML at bats. In fact other than Jones (32) their oldest starting position player was Walker (27). Even old man Liriano is only 29. The future is very bright for this team. Enjoy!!

  • buster09

    +1 smurph