The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

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October 6, 2013

Gamble on Liriano pays off for Pirates

PITTSBURGH — Francisco Liriano started 2013 with his right arm in a cast and his star-crossed career in flux.

A freak accident while goofing off with his kids on Christmas Day left Liriano’s verbal agreement with the Pittsburgh Pirates in doubt. Suddenly, the fresh start Liriano desperately needed appeared iffy.

“I didn’t think I was going to play this year,” Liriano said.

Pittsburgh stuck with Liriano, signing him at a discount. They Pirates were assured his right arm would heal and his left arm – the one rebuilt during Tommy John surgery in 2007 – would turn out to be a perfect fit at PNC Park.

“If A.J. (Burnett) was going to be our one, he could be our two,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “Where that two went, how high it played, I don’t think any of us knew.”

Higher, it turns out, than Liriano or his perpetually optimistic manager imagined.

Ten months after wondering when – and where – he would pitch again, Liriano can give the resilient Pirates the lead in the NL division series on Monday when they face St. Louis and right-hander Joe Kelly in Game 3.

Following a 16-8 regular season in which he evolved into Pittsburgh’s de facto ace, Liriano became a part of franchise lore in a 6-2 victory over Cincinnati in the NL wild-card game on Tuesday. Overpowering the Reds in front of a black-clad crowd aching for postseason success after the Pirates’ 21-year absence, Liriano delivered seven sublime innings that left the park in such a frenzy that fans couldn’t figure out whether to chant his first name or his last – so separate chants of both broke out.

“Just trying to please the fans as much as I can,” Liriano said, “be myself and make some good pitches and just give them the win they want.”

One Liriano may have wanted even more. An All Star as a 22-year-old with the Minnesota Twins in 2006, Liriano has spent the better part of a decade searching for the form that made him one of the most electrifying lefties. He underwent reconstructive elbow surgery on Nov. 6, 2006, needed more than a year to recover and  then worked five middling seasons that made him look more like a cautionary tale than a potential postseason hero.

Pittsburgh is willing to take fliers on players who flamed out elsewhere. It didn’t work out in 2012 when Erik Bedard signed a one-year deal only to be cut loose in late-August.

Liriano’s broken arm may have turned out to be a blessing. Forced to prepare for the season slowly while his right arm healed, Liriano sent a jolt through the staff when he arrived in mid-May. His slider and breaking ball made more potent by a tweak in his delivery and a fastball that has resumed topping out in the mid-90s, Liriano has been devastating at PNC Park, where long fly balls to left field become innocuous outs.

After making quick work of the Reds, Liriano is 9-1 with a 1.43 ERA at home this season, including a pair of wins over the Cardinals.

“We have a game plan we’ll take into tomorrow,” St. Louis manager Mike Matheny said. “We understand he’s a good pitcher. We also realize we have a very good lineup.”

And a guy on the hill who hardly seems concerned by the circumstances. Moved from the bullpen to the starting rotation in July, Kelly went 10-5 with a 2.69 ERA even as Matheny experimented with the 25-year-old’s role. He worked at least five innings in each of his last 15 outings, and the Cardinals were a remarkable 12-3 when he started, one of the main reasons they were able to hold off the Pirates in a hotly contested playoff race.

Like Pittsburgh star Gerrit Cole, Kelly appears immune to pressure. He made seven appearances out of the bullpen during the Cardinals’ run to the NL championship series last fall and seemed to enjoy the heckling he received from the San Francisco fans while warming up a few feet from the stands.

“That’s what playoff baseball is all about,” Kelly said. “You dream about it as a little kid. It’s going to be a great time. The atmosphere is going to be electric, obviously and I think our side is looking forward to it.”

Then again, the Cardinals don’t really have a choice.

Pittsburgh has come alive during the franchise’s unexpected revival. People stood on the Roberto Clemente Bridge behind the outfield wall during the wild-card game, eager to be a part of something not seen in a generation.

It’s a resurgence that worked in lock-step with Liriano’s emergence as the face of a pitching staff that is threatening to turn a simple “feel good” story into something significantly more substantial.

“You have to give him credit for the heart, the conviction, the intent that he put into everything,” Hurdle said. “That is what really, I think, has given that degree of separation from what we might have thought we were going to get to what he has actually done and performed and shown himself capable of.”

NOTES: The Pirates sent RHP Duke Welker to Minnesota to complete the Aug. 31 trade for 1B Justin Morneau. The Pirates also sent OF Alex Presley to the Twins.

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