PITTSBURGH – Francisco Liriano took the hill for his third straight Pirates Opening Day, and once again he delivered like he’s done in the past. Going six innings and striking out ten batters, Liriano didn’t allow a run against the Cardinals, leading the Pirates to an eventual 4-1 win.
He relied heavily on his fastball command to get ahead in counts. As the game wore on, he had some command issues with the secondary pitches; however, the deception of his slider played well for him today.
In his first three innings, he struck out five batters with three of those being called looking on the fastball. The other two were strikeouts swinging on his slider, set up by the fastball earlier in the count.
“I had good location of my fastball early in the game,” said Liriano. “I was getting ahead in the count.”
Liriano has said in the past that he struggles with gripping the ball for his off-speed stuff in the cold weather; however, it did not affect him too much today. To get his final five strikeouts of the day, he used his signature slider as an out pitch — four of those swinging and one looking. Batters had a measly .395 OPS against Liriano’s slider in 2015.
“I think they see fastball when it comes out of my hand,” Liriano said about his slider. “I try to have the same deliver and mechanics, so I think that confuses and affects batters.”
Hurdle said that Liriano was able to maintain his composure on multiple occasions to get out of jams.
“He kept them off of the plate, especially in three different jams where he had to do some extra work in the 3rd, 4th, and 6th,” said Hurdle. “He was able to get some called third strikes. He stayed aggressive and pitched his ballgame, and the defense made plays behind him when they needed to be made.”
His ten strikeouts on the day ties a Pirates Opening Day record with multiple other pitchers, and it is a feat that he already accomplished in 2014.
“He got out of some trouble in what seemed like probably 30 times today,” first baseman John Jaso said of Liriano. “That just shows his composure. He’s that kind of guy. He’s just calm across the board.”
Liriano did help himself, as well, recording the first official RBI of the 2016 Major League season with a second inning single to right field.
“We know he’s a wild card when we send him up there,” Hurdle said. “It’s fun to see him take a couple whacks at it, and you see what happened.”
Different Role for Tony Watson
Interestingly enough, Clint Hurdle may have tipped his hand before the game about how he will utilize his bullpen this season, as the Pirates may not necessarily use Tony Watson in strictly an 8th inning role. You can read more about this in Tim Williams’ pre-game story, but Hurdle essentially said that they do not want to handcuff themselves into only using Watson in the 8th and give Neftali Feliz every opportunity to pitch late in the game, as well.
It turned out that the opportunity to use Watson in the 7th presented itself this afternoon, as the left-handed hitting duo of Matt Carpenter and Matt Adams loomed in the inning. The Cardinals mostly had lefty pinch hitting options for the pitcher, so lefty Jeremy Hazelbaker hit as well. Watson, who held lefties to a .186 average last season, struck out Hazelbaker and Adams, and he forced a weak fly ball against Carpenter.
Clint Hurdle acknowledged after the game that the pitcher-hitter match-ups forced him to use Watson in the 7th, rather than his traditional 8th inning.
“You’re going to have some different looks,” Hurdle said. “If you go with a right-handed pitcher, you’re going to have Moss, Carpenter, and Adams. Do you want to go against those three with a right-hander, or do you go with Watson against any left-hander, Carpenter, and Adams? There are two good hitters there, but it is left-on-left for three straight batters.”
Hurdle, who also noted Matt Holiday and Randal Grichuk’s familiarity facing Watson, decided it was best to go left-on-left with Watson, then allow Neftali Feliz to pitch the 8th. Feliz, consequently, recorded three straight outs in the inning.
Watson wasn’t told until this morning that he could be used in a role other than simply the 8th inning.
“He said if it’s a situation where there’s some lefties in there, and it actually ended up working out perfect,
Watson said. “They had lefties on the bench, then Carpenter and Adams. So lefty, lefty, lefty. It worked out perfect.”
“Whenever my name is called, I’ll be ready. All of us take a lot of pride in getting the ball to Melancon. No matter what inning it is, it doesn’t matter.”
Hurdle hinted at “giving it some length” when asked about utilizing match ups more often this season, giving more thought to the analytical side of the game.
“We’ll watch the maturation of the bullpen with those individuals out there with their roles. Neftali [Feliz] has pitched the 7th and 8th before. I watched him win the Rookie of the Year award as a closer with Texas in 2010. We know he can fit different ways. I do anticipate us doing a number of different things, not just with the bullpen, but with the lineup, moving runners, and more.”
Strong First Impressions From the New Guys
By Tim Williams
It didn’t take long for John Jaso and David Freese to make a nice first impression with the Pirates. The first two plays of the game were grounders to the corner infielders, which they both handled with ease, despite both hits being somewhat difficult plays.
Jaso started it off, fielding a hard grounder slightly to his right, then making the flip to Liriano at first. It was only one play, but was a sigh of relief for everyone worrying about Jaso’s transition to the position, after watching Pedro Alvarez all last year. As for Jaso, it was a sigh of relief for him, and allowed him to get some butterflies out.
“It definitely helped,” Jaso said. “I think we’re all pretty amped up. All of us here, all of the Cardinals were probably amped up. Somehow the ball just always finds the new guy, it seems like. It was good to get that one out of the way, and kind of calm down the butterflies a little bit.”
The next play was a slow chopper hit to Freese at third. He barehanded the ball and made the throw to first, just getting the runner for the second out.
“It was nice to get a play like that in the first inning and get things going a little bit,” Freese said.
He also had a tough play in the sixth inning, bailing Liriano out with the bases loaded and two outs by fielding a tough chopper to his left, and making the throw to second to end the inning. The play was huge, as the Pirates were only up 2-0 at the time, and needed to escape the inning.
“The chopper to my left, glad it found my mitt,” Freese said. “Those are tough. No matter what position you’re playing, there are certain balls that can eat you up. You’ve just got to wear it. You try to get yourself in good position to make a play. It helped out Liriano’s outing, and helped us go on to win a ballgame.”
Both players produced with the bat as well. Jaso went 1-for-4 while knocking in a run, and Freese picked up two hits. The overall performance for Freese was nice to see against his former club, but he downplayed that angle after the game, saying he only viewed them as just another team. Still, Hurdle was glad to have him out there.
“First Opening Day as a Bucco, and I’m sure he’ll remember it,” Hurdle said. “He’s a good player and I’m glad we have him. He’s fit in seamlessly in the clubhouse, on the field, in the dugout, and in the lineup. The play he made in the 6th inning was a partial save with the short hop and strong throw. I thought it was a really fantastic play. Gloving that bullet towards the end was a nice play. The at-bats were battle at-bats. We’re happy we got him.”
Even Neftali Feliz got in the action, throwing his scoreless inning in the eighth inning in his Pirates’ debut, taking over that role with Watson moving to the seventh today.
“This guy’s been pitching high leverage innings for good ball teams the last couple of years,” Watson said. “He’s more than capable to eat up some innings for us. It doesn’t matter what inning. Whenever we’re called, we’ll be ready.”
The Pirates didn’t get a lot of praise for their off-season moves, and the jury is still out on their approach. But for today, the moves worked out, with good results from their Opening Day corner infielders, along with a potential new late inning guy.
By Tim Williams
**Both David Freese and John Jaso discussed how welcoming the clubhouse was to them when they first joined the organization.
“I felt pretty comfortable a few days into camp,” Freese said. “This is a really easy-going group. Great organization. I’m not just saying that either. These guys are awesome.”
“These guys are great,” Jaso said. “The teammates that Neal has brought here, they’re just very welcoming, and right away you just feel like part of the club.”
I can vouch for the Freese comments about how he’s not just saying that. The first day he was in camp, he was going through batting practice with Andrew McCutchen, Francisco Cervelli, Jung-ho Kang, Starling Marte, and a few other players. Freese was leading off the group, and after four rounds, he asked how many rounds they usually did.
The answer from the group was that it was all about him that day, and they would do any amount of rounds he wanted to do. Freese seemed to be coming in as the new guy, wanting to make sure he was doing everything right, while his teammates immediately made sure to make him feel part of the team, while also giving him every opportunity to get his work in after a late start.
**Clint Hurdle discussed the lineup configuration, which the Pirates discussed over the winter, and waited until mid-Spring Training to implement. The goal with this is to get a more consistent lineup, which is why they waited so long, holding off until a point where they could have more consistency and let everyone get used to it in Spring Training. But the big thing isn’t about consistency, but about execution. Hurdle pointed out why the Royals were so successful with this approach last year.
“There are 30 teams in the big leagues looking at lineup construction and being tougher from top to bottom, working counts, and doing those things,” Hurdle said. “It was the Royals’ execution that created the separation from everyone else in the industry. It’s getting those men to be able to perform in the box and execute. There are things that need to be done to buy into that mentality; however, we’ve also had the right side of our infield subtract some home run power. There are different ways to score runs so we heightened everyone’s attention to how we need to go about it.”
**In the eighth inning, the Pirates called on Sean Rodriguez for a familiar role, putting him in at first base as a defensive replacement. This is a role Rodriguez was familiar with last year, and it limited him to that role, rather than a super utility role. Heading into Spring Training, Hurdle talked about how they wanted Rodriguez moving around, rather than sticking to that role. I asked Hurdle after the game if the presence of Cole Figueroa would allow the Pirates to use Rodriguez in this role more often this year.
“I don’t know if we could do it more than we did last year, truthfully. I think we used him every opportunity there possibly was. Figueroa will hopefully free up Sean to go some other places, as well. It depends on who started the game, who comes in the game, who’s on the backside. We’re looking at different options. Figueroa gives us overall a better bench look. We played him all over the outfield, both corners, and all three infield positions. He’s going to help our team with his defensively versatility, and I like the bat off the bench and when it starts.”
**Tony Watson on whether the team will have a strong bullpen again this year: “We’re off to a good start, so we’ll see. We’ve got [Hughes] on the mend right now, but we’ve got some good arms [in the bullpen], and some guys who know how to bring it, some guys who know how to pitch.”