While Pirates’ fans worst fears were confirmed with Francisco Cervelli’s injury news, the jury is still out on Gerrit Cole’s right triceps.
It’s the making of a perfect storm: when a team loses one of their best hitters, they need to rely on their pitching to carry them. Now they need to rely on a rotation that could be down its ace.
Until we have a definitive answer on Cole, the Pirates need to operate on the assumption that Francisco Liriano is the ace. So far, he hasn’t been close. In fact, coming into his start Saturday, he was the worst pitcher in baseball, with -0.5 fWAR.
The reasons why he’s struggled this year have been well documented. Walks are up. Swings and misses are down. Fly balls are leaving the yard at a 22 percent rate. Find a worst case scenario for any pitcher, and that’s been Liriano in 2016.
Saturday’s performance had some bright moments, including eight strikeouts and retiring 11 straight batters from the first through the fourth.
“I feel like I threw the ball better than the last couple of times,” Liriano said. “…I feel a lot better.”
However, the final line was still unflattering. Four runs, while unearned, in six innings may not have been a disaster, but the matchup was tailor made to be a slump buster for him.
He had extra rest. He was at home, where his ERA was 3.14, compared to 7.09 on the road. He got to play the Cardinals, where he had struck out 20 this year in 13 innings while only allowing two runs. Not only that, the Cards’ played without Matt Carpenter in the lineup. And the final result was four runs allowed. Yes, it will help the ERA, but not necessarily build confidence.
Don’t get me wrong: Liriano was not the reason why the Pirates lost Saturday. He had some good stuff, got more swings and misses than he had recently and was getting ahead in the count. He potentially came one passed ball away from going toe for toe with Martinez in his gem.
“He easily could have seven, eight shutout innings,” Chris Stewart said.
But there is a big difference between “not being why they lost” and “the reason why they won.”
Even if Cole’s triceps are fine and he does not miss any time, that does not give Liriano a bye. He needs to be this staff’s number two guy. With starting pitching in high demand, it’s unlikely the Pirates will add a starter before the trade deadline. Yes, there’s Jameson Taillon and potentially Tyler Glasnow and Chad Kuhl in AAA, but relying on a rookie to be anything more than a 4-5 is madness. While Niese and Locke have been quality back of the rotation arms with the exception of a handful of hiccups, the middle part of the starting five needs its foundation.
The Pirates’ season may lay on Liriano’s left arm. He’s carried weaker rotations before, and it’s time for him to do it again.