KANSAS CITY — Francisco Liriano joins the Toronto Blue Jays as a bit of a project. No pitcher in baseball has walked more batters than him this season and his 5.46 ERA is the third-worst among qualified starters. The Pittsburgh Pirates, renowned for getting the most out of struggling pitchers and revitalizing floundering careers, figured they couldn’t cure what ailed him, which has to be a discouraging thing for Toronto’s coaching staff to consider.
That said, the Blue Jays have some ideas for the 32-year-old—some tendencies in his mechanics picked up on video that the club thinks could be leading to his struggles. After all, this is a pitcher who was remarkably consistent from 2013 through 2015, pitching to a 3.26 ERA and a 9.6 K/9 over more than 500 innings.
But before his first start in a Blue Jays uniform Friday night, Toronto’s coaching staff didn’t ask him to change anything. They simply instructed their newest starter to take the mound and do what felt right.
“The worst thing you can do is start tinkering with somebody who’s the new guy on the block. They’ve got enough things on their mind,” Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said before the game. “Over time, if you see something that might help him out, then you’ll let him know. But sometimes somebody can go to a new place and it sets them off in the right direction and, who knows, he could be great for us. You’ve got to give him a chance.”
Well, Liriano certainly gave the Blue Jays coaching staff plenty to chew on Friday night, looking terrific through his first four innings before falling back into some bad habits later on in a 4-3 Blue Jays victory. Liriano didn’t factor into the decision, as Devon Travis broke a 3-3 tie with a solo shot in the ninth inning, his second of the game. But Liriano’s performance is perhaps the most significant thing the Blue Jays will take away from this humid night in Kansas City.
“I liked everything I saw. I thought he was really, really good,” Gibbons said after the game. “He’s not a pinpoint guy. So, don’t expect that. But I thought he was great.”
Command has been Liriano’s weakness all season, but you wouldn’t have known it as he allowed only an unearned run on four hits through his first four frames, striking out three and, most importantly, walking none. But he walked a batter in both the fifth and sixth, allowing a pair of earned runs and his 20th home run of the season in the process, as he appeared to lose the feel for his pitches.
“That’s one of the things I’ve tried to eliminate—the walks,” Liriano said. “I walked two guys today. But besides that, I think I threw the ball pretty well and only missed my spot a couple times.”
In the aggregate, Liriano was perfectly serviceable, allowing two earned runs on seven hits over six innings, striking out five and walking only those two. But the Blue Jays will surely go over the film of that fifth and sixth inning closely, looking for clues to help Liriano eliminate those stretches when he struggles with his command.
Liriano admitted he was nervous taking the mound for his first outing with his new team, saying the anxiety felt similar to what he experienced when he made his major league debut as a 21-year-old for the Minnesota Twins in 2005. But he also said that having Russell Martin—who caught some of Liriano’s best years with the Pirates in 2013 and ’14—behind the plate provided a sense of calm.
Liriano only shook off Martin once on the night and said the veteran catcher was encouraging him to work backwards—beginning an at-bat with an off-speed pitch instead of a fastball—more than he had earlier this season with the Pirates.
“He has the ability to throw his breaking stuff for strikes, so [working backwards] is a good way to keep hitters off balance,” Martin said. “He’s the same guy. The stuff is exactly the same. It’s electric. Good arm speed on the changeup, good arm speed on the slider. It kind of masks what the hitters are seeing. The slider’s spinning so tight that you don’t really see it until it’s too late.”
Liriano went to that slider 26 times Friday night, throwing 21 of them for a strike and getting a swing and miss with nine. But the pitch was also put in play five times without an out being made, which demonstrates the inconsistency that Liriano has shown this season.
At times, his stuff is nasty and near unhittable. At others, it’s poorly located and left over the plate. It’s up to the Blue Jays coaching staff, Martin, and, most crucially, Liriano, to figure out how to settle down the veteran left-handers command.
“We fell behind in the count a couple times and that’s one of the things that got me in trouble,” Liriano said. “But I’ll learn from those mistakes, move forward, and try to be better next time.”
Offensively, the Blue Jays were powered almost entirely by second baseman Travis, who bookended the game with solo home runs. In the first, he sent a breaking ball from Royals starter Dillon Gee 398 feet over the left-field fence for an early lead. Then, in the ninth, he drove a 99-mph fastball from Royals reliever Kelvin Herrera over that same left-field wall to win the game.
“It’s crazy. To hit two home runs in the big leagues in the same game, it’s stuff you dream about as a kid,” Travis said. “Definitely a pretty special day.”
Michael Saunders and Troy Tulowitzki drove in the other Blue Jays runs in the third, while the Royals got an unearned run in the first after an uncharacteristic throwing error by third baseman Darwin Barney.
Kansas City also got the Blue Jays in the fifth, as Liriano surrendered a solo shot to Paulo Orlando before issuing a two-out walk to Cheslor Cuthbert, his first free pass of the game. Naturally, it came back to bite him, as the very next batter, Lorenzo Cain, lined a poorly located Liriano slider to deep left-centre field for a triple that tied the game. But that only set the stage for Travis’ triumph in the ninth.
“You know what, I blacked out,” Travis said when asked to recount the game-winning homer. “[Herrera’s] the real deal. The biggest thing is just going up there and trying to battle. Trying to put them in play. Trying to find a barrel. And in a 1-2 count thankfully I got the barrel to the ball and it went out for us.”
For the Blue Jays, the win is nice—especially on a night when the division-leading Baltimore Orioles won as well. But the biggest thing the club will take away from this night is undoubtedly Liriano’s early returns.
The Blue Jays are hoping to extract as much value as they can out of the veteran who’s under contract next year at a not-insignificant $13.6 million. Of course, helping Liriano regain his form could be a massive boon for the Blue Jays and make that salary look paltry. Gibbons remembers watching Liriano pitch for the Twins earlier in his career and immediately recognizing how good he can be when he’s at his best.
“I remember on any given night he could shut you out with a whole lot of strikeouts,” Gibbons said. “He had a great arm; no-hit stuff. And a great slider—really a wipeout slider.”
And how did Liriano look to the Blue Jays manager on this night in 2016?
“He looked exactly like I’ve ever seen him in the past,” Gibbons said. “He’s been a pretty good pitcher for a long time.”