Tunnel vision brings Liriano to Wild Card nod
Bucs bank on lefty's ability to keep approach simple with NLDS trip at stake
PITTSBURGH -- Some younger Pittsburgh Pirates have likened the present of a playoff game to Christmas.
Francisco Liriano, the left-hander assigned with knocking down the door to the rest of the postseason, hopes not. The last time he banged on a door at Christmas-time, in a playful attempt to startle his kids, he cracked a bone in his right arm.
Liriano's road back from that December accident to an October start -- he will get the ball on Tuesday night against the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Wild Card Game -- has been paved with the blood and sweat of rehabilitation, but few tears.
"I always feel good with Frankie on the mound," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, who manipulated his rotation two weeks ago to set Liriano up for this start.
The Bucs' first postseason game in 21 years will be a glaring, and deserved, showcase for the compelling comeback of the 29-year-old Dominican, who will face Johnny Cueto in the first Dominican Duel in a win-all postseason game, and only the third playoff game in history featuring two starters from that country.
Delayed by that broken right humerus, Liriano did not make his first start until May 11, in the Pirates' 36th game. By game No. 80, he'd exceeded his six wins of last season. By game No. 90, he was tied for the team lead in wins. By the end, he had 16 of them -- six more than any of the other starters.
But none of that is what made him the obvious choice for this assignment. On a team around which the big question is how the newbies will react to postseason pressure, Liriano is built for the postseason.
He lives in his own world, oblivious to all the noise and sideshows of a high-profile sports life. Some may even call him an airhead, for the detached way he goes about it.
Getting ready for a start after the Pirates' 81st win, Liriano was asked about going for No. 82, a number magical only in Pittsburgh, because it would end 20 consecutive years of losing.
Liriano had no idea what that was about, admitting, "I didn't know about that. I'd never heard of it."
A couple of weeks later, Liriano was taken aback when the PNC Park crowd gave him a huge ovation after he'd notched the 1,000th strikeout of his career.
"I didn't know; I don't pay attention to that stuff," he admitted.
On more than one occasion, following his starts, Liriano couldn't be found by media wishing to interview him. Asked about it the next day, he would say with total sincerity and apologetically, "Oh, I forgot."
Such tunnel vision plays well when Liriano is on the mound. It's just him and the catcher's glove. His good games or the occasional bad one all come down to one thing: "Hitting my spots," which of course means the catcher's target.
Liriano has often missed his spots in four starts against the Reds, three of them losses, a big chunk of his season total of eight defeats. Likewise, the Reds have claimed four -- two by Todd Frazier -- of the nine home runs he has given up.
And none of that wil bother Liriano when he takes the mound on Tuesday night, because his comeback season has been built on magnificent resilience, whether from team plight -- it won't apply now, but he is 8-2 with an ERA of 1.25 following Pirates losses -- or his own poor efforts. Six times, Liriano has been off enough to allow four or more runs, and in the starts following those, he posted a combined ERA of 1.07.
Oh -- Liriano will be coming off his seventh such sour start, although one swing by Darnell McDonald accounted for three of the four runs he gave up to the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday.
Acquiring this bounce-back ability is one ingredient of the breakout success of a pitcher who in the past would let bad outings eat at him.
"I would lose sleep over them," Liriano admitted. "But I know you can't do anything about yesterday. So I just go back to work and get ready for the next one."
Another ingredient is a way of pitching NL teams are not accustomed to: Backwards, meaning he gets ahead of the count with breaking stuff, then comes with the fastball hammer.
Then, there's the ingredient for which there is no substitute: Lessons only adversity can teach.
"It can come with just experience and maturity," Hurdle said. "At some point, if the old way isn't working, you move on to try something different. He found some solutions and can hang tough, regardless of what the results are, and fight through."
For example, next time he wants to startle Kevin and Francis, his kids, Liriano will probably settle for going, "Boo!"
Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.