The 32-year-old, acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates ahead of the trade deadline, surrendered five earned runs over 5 and 2/3 innings in 5-3 loss to the Houston Astros at Rogers Centre on Friday night.
Liriano gave up eight hits, including a home run, walked a pair, hit a batter, and struck out four, a much different performance compared to the six solid innings (two earned runs) he delivered in his debut for the Blue Jays in Kansas City last week. It was more in line, however, with a season-long struggle (6-12, 5.40 ERA).
"I’ve been trying to look for answers," Liriano said through an interpreter. "I try to go out there and do my job, but (bad) things have been happening a lot for me this year."
Edwin Encarnacion hit his 300th career home run in defeat while Michael Saunders set a new career-high for homers with his 20th of the season. Encarnacion led off the ninth inning with the milestone blast — his 32nd this season — also matching Mark Trumbo of the Baltimore Orioles for MLB’s home run lead.
Outduelling Liriano was former Jays first-round pick (2011) Joe Musgrove. The 23-year-old dominated in only his second career MLB start, tossing seven innings of two-run ball in front of more than 46,000, while striking out seven and walking only one.
"He did a helluva job," Jays manager John Gibbons said. "He attacked us."
Toronto entered play with a half game lead over Baltimore in the race for the American League East crown.
Sharp over the first two innings, Liriano’s control slipped away as he scuffled in the top half of the third. The former Pirate walked a pair and then surrendered a single to Alex Bregman to load the bases with only one out. While he retired the league’s top hitter in Jose Altuve, Liriano proceeded to give up a hard two-run single to Carlos Correa as the Astros jumped in front 2-0.
"I felt good physically and then things didn’t go well for me," Liriano said. "I was behind in the count a lot so that didn’t help and the walks, that didn’t help either for me today."
The Jays cut the deficit in half in the bottom of the inning. Darrell Ceciliani led off with a double and then moved to third on a single from Devon Travis, the 25-year-old extending his hit streak to eight games (.457 average, 16-35). Josh Donaldson grounded into the double play that scored Ceciliani’s first run as a Jay.
Toronto tied the score 2-2 in the fourth when Saunders sent a 93 MPH sinker from Musgrove over the wall in left-centre. Saunders’ previous career-high of 19 homers was set during the 2012 season while he played for the Seattle Mariners.
The 29-year-old entered the night in a funk, batting .156 (5-32) for the month with one extra-base hit, no home runs and only one RBI.
Houston regained control of the lead for good in the fifth, hitting Liriano hard en route to two more runs.
The Astros started the inning with a pair of hits, including a double off the wall by Bregman. Contained earlier, Altuve struck this time with a pair of runners on, tucking a low shot just inside the line at third, past Donaldson and into the left-field corner for a two-run double. Gibbons thought it was the key blow in defeat for the Jays.
Houston added another run for a 5-2 lead in the sixth when centre fielder Teoscar Hernandez, in his MLB debut, cracked a solo shot to left. It was his first hit in the big leagues.
Liriano hit the next batter and was replaced by Ryan Tepera. Friday marked the 11th time in 24 starts that the big left-hander has allowed four runs or more in a start this season. The Jays are counting on him to provide depth in their unorthodox six-man rotation, a risky bet given his previous struggles this season in Pittsburgh (1.62 WHIP).
"Kind of a mixed bag," Gibbons said of Liriano’s outing.
Gibbons said earlier in the day that Aaron Sanchez would likely be skipped in that rotation occasionally down the stretch as a precaution. Sanchez (11-2, 2.85 ERA), due to pitch Saturday, has thrown a career-high of 145.1 innings this season.
Encarnacion became the 11th ever player Dominican Republic-born player to hit 300 home runs, while Jose Bautista accomplished the feat earlier this season. The ball was crushed to left field off Astros closer Will Harris. The Jays tracked down the ball for Encarnacion who said he would give it to his father.
"I never thought I was going to get there," Encarnacion said of the milestone through an interpreter. "I’m really glad and really happy."
A six-foot-five righty picked 46th overall, Musgrove was dealt to Houston in 2012 in a 10-player transaction which saw J.A. Happ end up in Toronto for the first time.