Francisco Liriano’s start vs. Rays provides dose of optimism for Blue Jays

Russell Martin homered to put the Blue Jays ahead as they split a two-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays.

TORONTO – For a Toronto Blue Jays team that’s spent most of the season searching for answers in the starting rotation, Francisco Liriano’s best outing in months was encouraging on a couple of levels.

First of all, Liriano’s seven innings set up the Blue Jays’ 7-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays and allowed Toronto to climb to within one game of the .500 mark yet again. The Blue Jays needed an eighth-inning home run from Russell Martin to salvage the win, but it wouldn’t have been possible without a strong start from Liriano.

“He was dynamite,” manager John Gibbons said. “Tonight was as crisp as we’ve seen him … he did a hell of a job.”

The outing, Liriano’s third since returning from the shoulder strain that sidelined him for most of May, also suggests the left-hander’s back at full strength. He set season-highs with seven innings and 100 pitches while striking out nine and allowing just two earned runs.

Considering how heavily the Blue Jays’ bullpen has been taxed this season, those innings are especially valuable. To this point Liriano’s struggles have contributed to that heavy bullpen workload—he had completed six innings in just one of his nine starts before Wednesday. This time, he provided Toronto’s relievers with a break.

“I just try to put the past behind me,” Liriano said. “Every time I go out there it gives me confidence, not only for me but for the team.”

Then there’s the question of quality. For the first time since April, Liriano looked like the pitcher who dominated opposing hitters down the stretch in 2016 then impressed onlookers in his first spring as a Blue Jay. He touched 95 m.p.h. Wednesday, inducing 13 swinging strikes.

“The fastball command was better than what I’ve seen in the past,” Martin said. “Today he was a guy who looked confident on the mound, challenging guys with his fastball and using the change-up and slider whenever he wanted to.”

“Russ likes to call the pitches that are working that day,” Liriano added. “Sometimes it might be a slider or fastball. Today it was the fastball. We used it a lot because I was locating well.”

Paired with J.A. Happ’s strong outing against the Seattle Mariners on Sunday, Liriano’s performance has to be reassuring the Blue Jays. Entering the season, their starting rotation was expected to build on a 2016 season in which they led the American League in ERA and innings. That’s not happening again this year—entering play Wednesday, Blue Jays starters had a 4.39 ERA—but these starts suggest Happ and Liriano are regaining their form. That’s essential for a club with designs of re-entering the playoff picture as a series contender.

On offence, Kendrys Morales provided the Blue Jays with their first lead of the game in the fifth inning when he hit a 3-1 pitch from Jake Odorizzi into the right-centre-field seats. The three-run shot was measured at 465 feet—the longest home run by a Blue Jays hitter this year.

While the home runs from Morales and Martin accounted for much of the offence, other Blue Jays contributed, too. Dwight Smith Jr., called up earlier in the day to replace the injured Ezequiel Carrera, began the day with one career hit and ended it with four after a productive day at the plate that included a stolen base.

“He’s not a burner, but he runs pretty good,” Gibbons said. “That’s big for him, getting his feet wet and feeling like he’s part of the team. He’s doing a nice job.”

Just in case you needed another reminder of how misleading pitcher wins can be, Liriano got a no-decision while Joe Smith picked up the win despite giving up the lead with a rare blown save. The Rays narrowed the Blue Jays’ lead to one when Logan Morrison took Smith deep for his 19th home run of the season in the eighth inning. Four batters later, a Derek Norris sacrifice fly tied the score.

But after Martin’s late homer gave the Blue Jays another lead, Roberto Osuna entered and did his part.

More important were the seven innings that preceded Smith and Osuna. By putting together his best start since April, Liriano provided the Blue Jays with reason for a little more optimism going forward.

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