PITTSBURGH — Francisco Liriano has struggled throughout most of the 2016 season. Entering Friday’s start against the Los Angeles Angels, the veteran left-hander possessed a 4.63 ERA. His highest season-long mark in his previous three seasons in Pittsburgh was 3.38.
But for the most part, manager Clint Hurdle and the Pirates’ pitching staff have let Liriano pitch through his issues. In each of his first ten starts of the season, effective or not, Liriano was allowed to cross the 90-pitch barrier.
Friday, then, represented something of a tipping point, as Hurdle ambled out of the dugout after watching Liriano struggle through 3.1 innings in what would become a runaway 9-2 loss to the Angels.
It took Liriano 76 pitches to get as far as he did, giving up a season-high 10 hits and seven runs in the process. Things came unraveled right from the get-go, as he gave up a lead-off single to Yunel Escobar, walked Kole Calhoun, and then Mike Trout hit an RBI single before Liriano had even recorded an out.
“It seemed like after Trout got that hit … I don’t want to say it fell apart, but [Liriano] wasn’t really attacking the zone anymore,” said catcher Chris Stewart. “He was trying to make pitches better than he needed to and he was missing a lot, getting behind guys.”
Liriano insisted that he’s feeling physically fine, but admitted that he’s “going through a tough time right now.”
“It’s more of a mental grind for him right now,” Stewart said. “Things aren’t working for him right now and he’s searching for that comfort zone and hasn’t been able to find it. When things aren’t going well for him, he tries to over-do it.”
For Liriano’s manager, the issues represent a concerning trend.
“We haven’t been able to find a consistent rhythm and maintain it for six or seven innings,” Hurdle said. “We’ve seen snapshots of it — small sequences and maybe even some larger sequences — but the overall consistency hasn’t been there. It’s fabric to few outings now, consistently.”
Of course, struggles with command are nothing new to Liriano. It’s something that’s followed him throughout his Major League career. As a result, he’s no stranger to a long five-day wait after a tough outing.
“[I just] work on my bullpens in-between my starts,” he said of his process for trying to get himself back on track. “I don’t watch that much video. I just try to think positive, stay patient, and stay with the process.”
After finishing the series in Miami on an 0-for-9 streak at the plate, center fielder Starling Marte broke out in a big way by going 3-for-4 with a 390-foot solo home run to left field to lead off the second inning.
It was an unexpected break out, not only because Marte had been recently struggling, but because Angels starter Jered Weaver throws with a cross-body delivery that can be tricky for right-handed hitters. But that wasn’t the case.
“Miami was a tough series,” Marte admitted. “I figured that today was a new day. We saw Weaver [in the first inning] and he was working those guys inside. I got a sample of how they were going to do it.”
Weaver nearly escaped that first at-bat without damage, as Marte hit his 1-1 curveball deep to left but, it hooked to the outside of the foul pole. The next pitch — an inside fastball — found a home in the bleachers.
“When I hit that foul ball, I didn’t think that he would come in with the same pitch,” Marte said. “I knew that he was coming inside, I put my hands to work and I got the next pitch.”
Marte followed up with a single off Weaver in the sixth and a double off reliever Greg Mahle in the eighth.
• Jung Ho Kang followed Marte’s home run with one of his own, as the Pirates’ only two runs came on back-to-back at bats.
• Andrew McCutchen, who came out of Thursday’s loss to the Marlins with thumb discomfort, reported no further issues. He went 1-for-4.
• Reliever Rob Scahill pitched a scoreless 2.1 innings of relief. It was Scahill’s first multi-inning appearance of the season, and he has now giving up just three hits in his last 5.1 innings since coming up from Triple-A Indianapolis on May 25.
Jeff Locke (4-3, 4.33 ERA) will face Nick Tropeano (3-2, 3.25 ERA) Saturday at 4:05 p.m.