Veteran Liriano seeks first 200-inning season

Veteran Liriano seeks first 200-inning season

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Francisco Liriano didn't expect to start on Opening Day. If Gerrit Cole's right rib hadn't bothered him at the start of camp, maybe Liriano would have been getting the ball on Tuesday instead of Sunday afternoon.

But that doesn't change that Liriano is a worthy Game 1 starter for the Pirates. That's why Pittsburgh trusted him with the assignment the last two seasons and will do so again at 1:05 p.m. ET Sunday against the Cardinals at PNC Park.

Liriano won't just be opening the Pirates' season, either. The Bucs and Cardinals will play the first game of Major League Baseball's regular-season schedule. 

The 32-year-old left-hander will make his third straight Opening Day start, becoming the first Pirates pitcher to begin three consecutive seasons since Doug Drabek from 1990-92. He is the fifth Pirates starter to receive three straight Opening Day nods, joining Drabek, Bob Veale (1964-67), Bob Friend (1956-58, '60-62) and Cy Blanton (1936-39).

"I think it means that I'm being more consistent than I used to be before," Liriano said. "I wish I can continue to do that and be more consistent, hopefully go deep into games and throw more innings this year."

Liriano was once a model of inconsistency, of incredible stuff that didn't always translate to impressive numbers. Now, he's an unquestioned top-of-the-rotation strikeout artist. The only thing missing is a 200-inning season, something he hopes to check off his list this year.

The southpaw went 12-7 with a 3.38 ERA and 205 strikeouts over 186 2/3 innings in 2015, the first season under a three-year, $39 contract. He came to Pittsburgh in 2013 with a 4.40 career ERA. In three seasons as a Pirate, Liriano is 35-25 with a 3.26 ERA.

But what sets Liriano apart, according to manager Clint Hurdle, can't be found in his numbers. You can't comprehend his full value, Hurdle said, by simply watching his electric fastball or slider.

Liriano strikes out Jennings

"You eliminate the numbers and you've got a man that's committed to his teammates, committed to his work," Hurdle said. "He was a great get for us, a player to plug in a rotation with some young pitchers to show the value of the other four days. It's real.

"I've also had pitchers where the other four days weren't the day. It was all about the day they got the ball. He's there for the other guys' bullpens. He's there when the games are being played and watching what's going on. Whenever it's done, he plugged in every day. There's electricity for everybody. Some people choose not to plug into it. He plugs into it every day."

For the third straight year, Liriano will plug into it on Opening Day.

"The first couple, I was nervous," Liriano said. "But now, I'm just more relaxed and just try to go out there and be myself, do everything to help the team."

Adam Berry is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.