Poor mound or not, Blue Jays’ Liriano continues to deal this spring

Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Francisco Liriano talks about his start Monday in Dunedin, Florida and how ready he is for the regular season.

DUNEDIN, Fla. — When Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Francisco Liriano threw his warm-up pitches Monday, he immediately sensed something wasn’t right with the mound. His landing area had a rut in it—a small dent that some pitchers like to have so they know they’re repeating their delivery in the right spot. Liriano hates the rut. He wants his landing area firm and flat. He finds he slips all over the place when it isn’t that way.

Liriano kicked at it, he gathered dirt with his feet, and he even called out the grounds crew between innings to try to improve the situation. None of it worked. And none of it mattered.

Pitching with his front foot sliding beneath him, Liriano seemed completely unbothered, striking out 10 Minnesota Twins over 4.2 innings as he continued to plow through spring training like a wrecking ball. Liriano now has a 1.86 ERA over 9.2 spring innings, striking out 18 while walking only two. And that doesn’t include the game he pitched on the minor league side, when he toyed with overmatched hitters who have never seen his kind of stuff in single- or double-A.

“I thought he was outstanding,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He looks really good this spring. I think he’s going to have a big, big year. I really do. He’s capable of that.”

Liriano’s only trouble on the afternoon was a two-run homer off the bat of Byung-ho Park. Liriano was trying to locate a sinker down and away to the right-handed batter but the pitch stayed up, where Park was able to clobber it. But other than that, the Blue Jays lefty was absolutely dominant.

He got ahead with his fastball, locating it to both sides of the plate, and jamming it inside to right-handed batters. He mixed in some first-pitch change-ups and sliders, too, throwing them consistently for strikes. His slider was especially unhittable, as it has been all spring, and was the out pitch for several of his strikeouts.

“Everything feels great,” Liriano said. “Everything is coming out the way I want it to. Location is the main focus for me right now with the fastball. And it’s getting better.”

Bad mound or good, Liriano’s shutting down practically every batter he sees right now. It stands in stark contrast to where Liriano was early on last season with the Pittsburgh Pirates, when he struggled significantly with his mechanics.

First, he fell into a bad habit of getting too far into his pitching motion before his arm came over the top, which opened up his left shoulder and affected his release point. It was like his arm couldn’t catch up to the rest of his body.

Then, in an effort to correct that, Liriano sped up his delivery and his upper body began getting ahead of his lower half. That led Liriano to overthrow, which robbed him of his fastball command and decreased the effectiveness of his breaking ball.

When he arrived in Toronto at the trade deadline, Blue Jays pitching coach Pete Walker worked diligently with Liriano to clean up the mechanical issues, getting his upper and lower halves working in concert once again. Liriano rediscovered his ideal release point, which got his fastball back in the zone, and made his secondary stuff that much more deceptive.

That’s how Liriano managed to finish the season on a tear, putting up a 2.92 ERA over his final two months with the Blue Jays. While his BB/9 was an unhelpful 5.5 over the first four months of the season with Pittsburgh, it was only 2.9 in his 10 outings with Toronto.

“It’s just his style. Sometimes his command deserts him. But we really haven’t seen it—that’s in the past.” Gibbons said. “His command’s been really, really good. He can get in those ruts where he loses it a little bit. But, shoot, he’s been dynamite this spring.”

Liriano will want to get up to 85 or 90 pitches in his next start, which he feels will be a good platform to take him into the season. In the past he’s gotten up to over 100 pitches during spring training, but he’s unsure if he’ll need to go that far this year.

“Physically, I feel great. Mentally, too,” Liriano said. “I feel 100 per cent right now.”

The Good from Monday’s game

Justin Smoak and Ryan McBroom hit back-to-back solo homers in the eight inning Monday, jumping all over a pair of misplaced pitches by Twins left-hander Adalberto Mejia. McBroom has made only eight plate appearances with the big league club this spring, but he now has a share of the team lead in home runs with two.

Troy Tulowitzki crushed a double to the wall in the first inning, continuing his recent hot streak. He has five hits and two walks in his last four games, reaching base in more than half his plate appearances.

And the bad

Ezequiel Carrera was helped off the field during the seventh inning after colliding with Darwin Barney as both players chased after a pop fly. Barney’s knee ran into Carrera’s right quadriceps, which left the outfielder on the ground in obvious discomfort for several minutes.

The Blue Jays will treat Carrera Monday night and evaluate his injury further in the morning. But there is hope he’ll be fine, as Gibbons said after the game, “I don’t think it will be a big deal.”

However, if Carrera’s spring is interrupted and he’s forced to miss an extended period of time, he could be hard pressed to be ready to start the season on opening day. That could, in turn, open up a roster spot for utility player Ryan Goins to come north with the club.

Devon Travis has made significant progress in his recovery from a knee injury over the past week and is trending towards being ready to play on opening day. That would make Goins the odd man out, with Barney locked in as the club’s back-up infielder.

But if Carrera misses time, the Blue Jays could bring Goins north and not have to risk exposing the out-of-options defensive specialist to waivers at the end of camp. It’s possible Goins could clear waivers and begin the season at triple-A Buffalo. But many believe another team may take a chance on Goins if he was available, especially a National League club.