Lakeland, Fla. — Only a few weeks ago, Francisco Liriano was one of those billboard big-leaguers hoping for a job.
He since has found work, with the Tigers, a team that might as well have a Pitching Help Wanted notice posted on the Publix Field marquee at Joker Marchant Stadium.
It could be a happy pairing based on Tuesday’s first peek at Liriano in Tigers togs. He started and worked two innings, striking out three, walking two, and getting slapped for a single in a scoreless stint that might have been the home-field highlight in the Yankees’ 7-2 whipping of Detroit.
“I liked what he did,” said Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire, who was the beneficiary of Liriano’s early big-league artistry when both were with the Twins. “It was the same thing I was seeing a long, long time ago.”
Liriano, 34, and a left-hander, signed with the Tigers two weeks ago but didn’t pitch in a game until Tuesday because of a strained hamstring. Only his control was off-key Tuesday as he threw 36 pitches, 19 for strikes.
His fastball ran 92-94 mph. His out pitch, a rugged slider, looked much like some of those old brutes he once unleashed a decade ago against Tigers batters. His change-up was particularly impressive, in Gardenhire’s view — “still dominating,” the skipper said.
Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez might agree. They each struck out in the first on a blend of Liriano pitches, as did Adam Lind in the second. The only Yankees hit against him was an opposite-field single to left by Greg Bird.
Liriano was at least satisfied Tuesday, which is a sentiment he would not have expressed a year ago when he had a rough time with the Jays and Astros, walking 53 batters in 97 innings.
“My main focus is eliminate walks and make something happen with three pitches or less,” Liriano said, toweling sweat from his face as he was debriefed in the Tigers clubhouse. “First outing — just working on mechanics. Physically, I’m fine. I feel I’m in pretty good shape now.”
The Tigers would love for Liriano to show he remains an every-five-days warhorse who can chew innings and help settle a rotation that by no means is set.
But that same gremlin from a year ago, throwing strikes, was still something of an issue Tuesday. After getting leadoff batter Didi Gregorius, he walked Aaron Judge ahead of Bird’s single. Free passes are not recommended when Stanton and Sanchez and their biceps are next in line. But down they went on strikes and Liriano was ready for the second.
He then walked leadoff batter Aaron Hicks in the second, another taboo when Hicks can out-run a cheetah. But Lind was put away on strikes as Liriano’s slider and change kicked in, all ahead of a Miguel Andujar ground ball that turned into a 6-4-3 double play.
The Tigers got pleasing work from two more pitchers Tuesday: Ryan Carpenter, a left-hander who is hoping to crack the rotation, as well as prospect right-hander Eduardo Jimenez. Carpenter threw 2 2/3 innings and struck out five Yankees batters with a low-90s fastball and a good secondary collection. A couple of bloop singles were part of the four hits and one run he allowed.
Jimenez, 22, and a right-hander with a mid-90s fastball, appeared for one inning, was nicked for a single, but struck out two. Three cohorts did not fare as well: Daniel Stumpf, who was slapped for two hits, a walk, and a run; Mark Mongtomery, who donated a hit, a walk, and an earned run; and Zac Reininger, who was hammered for three hits, including a three-run bomb in the ninth by Billy McKinney that landed on the patio in distant right-center.
None of the later failings would have mattered had the Tigers’ bats not been dozing Tuesday. They had only six hits, and only one for extra bases: Jeimer Candelario’s double to left-center in the fifth, which was another of the Tigers third baseman’s trademark opposite-field alley drives.
The Tigers are now 6-6 on the Grapefruit League season. They’ll be back home Wednesday, meeting the Blue Jays in Lakeland, with Matthew Boyd opening for the Tigers.