Liriano could be valuable bullpen weapon

Left-hander's ability to strike out hitters may be X-factor in Wild Card Game

Liriano could be valuable bullpen weapon

TORONTO -- Francisco Liriano was passed over as the Blue Jays' starter for Tuesday's American League Wild Card Game against the Orioles, but his presence in the bullpen could still become an X-factor in this matchup between division rivals.

Liriano received some consideration for the pivotal outing, but instead Toronto decided to go with Marcus Stroman. That left Liriano on the outside looking in, but that doesn't mean he will become the odd man out in this must-win game on Tuesday night at Rogers Centre at 8 p.m. ET on Sportsnet (English) and RDS (French) in Canada and on TBS in the United States.

Blue Jays manager John Gibbons has been searching for answers in the bullpen ever since right-hander Joaquin Benoit tore his left calf muscle in late September. Middle relief has been a glaring weakness ever since, but Liriano's transition to a new role could become the solution.

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"I'll do anything to help the team win the ballgame," Liriano said. "Whatever I can do, I'll do it. Some people get nervous and they get too excited sometimes doing too much. To me, I just go out there trying to have a good time and enjoy myself, not try and do too much, executing pitches and try to throw strikes."

Blue Jays' postseason gear

Liriano becomes even more important based on Stroman's numbers the third time through a batting order. Stroman limited opposing hitters to a .666 OPS the first time he faced them in a game this season. The second time through, that number dropped to .630, but after that it skyrocketed to .847 the third time and .992 the fourth time.

That would seem to indicate that the Blue Jays would be well served using Stroman to face the Orioles hitters just twice. Best-case scenario, that would have Stroman pitching into the sixth inning, but if things aren't going well it could be even shorter than that.

Stroman pitches into the 8th

Baltimore likely will have four lefties in its starting lineup on Tuesday night with Chris Davis, Hyun Soo Kim, either Pedro Alvarez or Michael Bourn and switch hitter Matt Wieters. The Orioles also have a notoriously difficult time with left-handed pitchers as evidenced by a .692 OPS that ranked last in the American League.

Toronto went through most of this year with Brett Cecil as its only viable option from the left side out of the bullpen. Liriano now enters that equation and whether it's to pitch multiple innings after Stroman, or to enter in a key matchup against a slugger like Davis, there's a good chance his number will be called.

Liriano fans Hardy

"They've got some pretty good left-handed hitters over there," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "You have Chris Davis, one of the biggest power threats in the game. Kim, who has done a heck of a job for them, who is a really tough out.

"They've got a power-packed offensive lineup. There may come a time we need a big key out. So it gives us some more options down there for sure."

The biggest asset Liriano will bring to the bullpen is his ability to miss a lot of bats. Toronto's bullpen ranked 10th in the AL with 472 strikeouts during the regular season, but Liriano struck out 9.5 batters per nine innings and that could become a crucial weapon depending on the situation.

Liriano avoids trouble

Only time will tell if the Blue Jays made the right decision in picking Stroman over Liriano, but one point that cannot be debated is that Toronto's bullpen looks a lot better now than it did last week.

"It means a lot to have his experience coming out of there," Blue Jays catcher Dioner Navarro said. "I remember that [2013 Wild Card] game he pitched in Cincinnati and if he can do that for us when he comes in tomorrow, it could be huge. Everybody in the bullpen is going to be ready and it's going to be fun. He'll be the first to tell you that this is what you play for. We'll see what happens."

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.