Call it his final hurdle to redemption, his final boss, whatever — when Francisco Liriano takes the mound on Tuesday night, his biggest enemy won’t be the Cincinnati Reds‘ big bats, but rather himself.
And while it’s certainly not necessarily right to diminish the group effort that the Pittsburgh Pirates have put forth to get themselves to the 2013 MLB playoffs in the NL Wild Card game, make no mistake about it: if it’s the wrong side of Liriano that ends up being on the mound, there’s a good chance that all of the positivity and goodwill built up from the Bucs’ best season in decades will end anti-climatically, if not disappointingly.
Such is the destructive power of Fransuckco, the alter-ego of the team’s lefty that is the primary reason why Pittsburgh has been enjoying his services for a mere $1 million in 2013 ($6 million in 2014). Fortunately for the team and its fan base, that man had been seldom seen this season, as Liriano has posted a 3.1 fWAR regular season with a 3.02/1.22 ERA/WHIP and a .222 BAA.
The unfortunate thing, however, is that Fransuckco has been knocking on the door all throughout September, and may be looking to make a full return at the worst possible time.
Sure, the Pirates are supposed to see this as just one game, and they’d be right to play it as if there were no sample sizes. That said, doubt can be a powerful thing even for a confident young squad with nothing to lose, and a 5.14/1.39 ERA/WHIP over 28 innings is as much of a reason for doubt as any.
Those are Liriano’s numbers over his last five starts in a 1-2 September, and while most of the damage did come in a classic Fransuckco outing at the beginning of the month (3.0 IP, seven runs, seven hits, two walks), there are other unwanted trends here that should have the Pirates on high alert.
The first of these is longevity. Though his 9.0 K/9 in September suggests that he’s still got plenty of stuff and he hasn’t exactly been overworked as far as overall innings count goes, the fact is that he’s thrown over six complete innings just once in his last five starts. It’s hard so say how he will respond to the extra adrenaline rush that comes with this do-or-die postseason game, but the Bucs’ bullpen is probably prepared for some extra work.
More concerning might be the emergence of a bad home run habit. With home runs in three of his last four starts, the 29-year-old owns an unsightly 1.29 HR/9 vs. 0.50 on the season and has seen his ground ball rate plummet to 42.9 percent vs. 50.5 in 2013. Being that his ability to generate ground balls and keep it in the park were arguably the two biggest keys to his success, that he’s been a different pitcher lately is fairly concerning.
Combined with a walk rate that’s gone from 3.29 BB/9 in the first half to 3.86 in September, and well … you know.
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom, of course. The team did deservedly get to this point after all, and Liriano was at his very best the last time he faced the Reds (8.0 IP, three hits, two runs, seven strikeouts), so the team had good reason to tab him for his all-important contest.
The only question is: will it be Francisco that shows up?