Liriano making strong case to be Opening Day starter

Left-hander tosses three scoreless frames, yields one hit, fans four

Liriano making strong case to be Opening Day starter

PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- With all of Pittsburgh's starting pitchers getting out of the Spring Training gate so well and given the team's new emphasis on their batwork, perhaps the Pirates should hold a hitting contest to decide who gets the Opening Day honor.

Oh, wait. That wouldn't help, since the pitchers are hitting 1.000, too. Francisco Liriano singled sharply here Tuesday, after Gerrit Cole had dented McKechnie Field's left-field wall with a double Monday.

Coincidentally, those two appear to be the finalists to draw the first-game assignment on April 6 in Cincinnati. A third sensible candidate, A.J. Burnett, has a history of superiority in PNC Park, making him more likely to start the home opener on April 13.

Between Liriano and Cole, whichever gets the opening nod, it would be significant.

Liriano, who started the 2014 opener at home against the Cubs, would become the first Pirates pitcher to start consecutive openers since Oliver Perez, in 2005-06 (and prior to that, you have to revert to another Francisco -- Cordova -- in 1998-99).

Cole would be the Bucs' 10th straight different Opening Day starter, which would have to be some kind of a record.

It is worth noting that even before his club vacated Pirate City on March 1, manager Clint Hurdle acknowledged having decided on his Opening Day starter, although he would keep it close to his vest for a spell.

Having Cole and Liriano start on back-to-back days sets either up for the assignment.

Liriano has a lifetime record of 0-4 in Great American Ball Park, where he has given up five home runs n 26 1/3 innings.

Cole authored arguably the best game of his career the last time he faced the Reds in Cincinnati. Although it got lost in the controversy over whether he should have been held back for the National League Wild Card game against the Giants, Cole gave the long-shot at an NL Central title his best shot on Sept. 28, fanning 12 without a walk in seven innings of four-hit, one-run ball.

"I haven't heard anything about Opening Day," Liriano said after holding the Rays to one hit through the first three innings of the 4-3 win, while picking up four strikeouts. "Everything felt good. I had good command with the fastball, throwing it on the corners to both sides of the plate."

"He's never going to be a guy who just goes out there to get his work in," Hurdle saluted. "I mean, his eyes ... they're focused. He's fully engaged. That's the way he's wired."

Touching all the bases
• First: Neil Walker was scratched from the original lineup against the Rays to rest a bruised leg after being hit by a pitch Monday.

• Second: Halfway through pitchers' situational hitting competition, the runaway leader is Burnett, with Charlie Morton and Tyler Glasnow running second and third.

• Third: Catcher Tony Sanchez, whose issues throwing were the main thing holding him back, for the second straight day made a strong, off-balance, on-target throw to nail a runner at second.

• Home: Pittsburgh pitching has allowed eight runs in the last 57 innings, and starters only one in 15 innings.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.