Gardenhire: Francisco Liriano has Tigers rotation spot if he’s healthy

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Detroit Tigers pitcher Francisco Liriano throws in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves on Sunday.

Lakeland, Fla. – Two left-handed pitchers at two very different career stages, essentially fighting for one spot in the Detroit Tigers’ rotation. Or so we thought.

That was the situation Sunday as both Francisco Liriano (34, 323 big-league games in 12 seasons) and Daniel Norris (24, 54 big-league games in four seasons) combined to pitch five scoreless innings in the Tigers’ 6-3 spring win over the Atlanta Braves.

The presumption was that Michael Fulmer, Jordan Zimmermann, Matthew Boyd and Mike Fiers had strong holds on the first four spots in the rotation, while Liriano and Norris were competing for the fifth spot.

Not true.

BOX SCORE: Tigers 6, Braves 3

“With Liriano, I don’t know if he’s fighting with anybody,” manager Ron Gardenhire said after the game. “We brought him here for a reason. Hopefully he will be in our rotation. We need his veteran experience in that rotation.

“If he’s healthy and well, I am sure that’s where he will be.”

Gardenhire didn’t want to break it down in terms of specific battles, who is fighting with whom for which spots.

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“We’re just trying to find five guys to start,” he said. “It’s not any mano y mano stuff. We are just trying to figure out who our five guys are going to be. But I am just telling you, we brought Liriano for veteran experience and his arm, and I fully expect him to be in our rotation if he’s healthy and doing what he can do.”

He said he and pitching coach Chris Bosio have not locked anybody in, with the exception of Fulmer and Liriano.

Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris throws against the Atlanta Braves in the fourth inning Sunday.

“We haven’t said anything about locks, we’re just letting them pitch,” he said. “We hope Liriano will be there and Fulmer. We feel like he will be there. After that, it’s a cat fight. And I am sure Boz will have a totally different answer if you ask him.”

Where does that leave Norris? Where does it leave Zimmmermann and Fiers, whom they have invested $30 million for this season. Where does it leave Boyd, who is out of minor-league options?

“We’re letting it play out,” Gardenhire said. “Let them pitch. But whichever way it goes, we’re going to have some starters down (in Triple-A). If we have injuries or stuff comes up, then we’ll have pitching in Triple-A too that we can use.

“We can’t start them all. It’s competition and we’ll let them swing away.”

Odd man out?

Norris, because he does have an option left, may end up being a convenient choice to start the year in Toledo. But he showed Sunday that he intends to go down fighting. He pitched the fourth and fifth innings, allowing three singles and a walk with three strikeouts.

“I don’t know what the plan is, but I wanted to keep pitching,” he said after throwing 40 pitches, 26 for strikes. “Boz didn’t say I was out of the game after I came off in the second. But he came up to me later and said, ‘That’s good.’ He said I warmed up with 40 pitches and I threw 40 in the game and he wanted me to finish around 100 throws.

“He’s locked in to all that.”

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Norris went out to the bullpen and threw another 20 pitches. It was his third outing of the spring after missing time early on with muscle soreness and a trip to Philadelphia to see a groin specialist.

He was in fairly good form Sunday. In one 13-pitch stretch, he got six swings and misses – using a fastball at 91-92 mph and a well-disguised change-up.

“The fastball started to get life back on it,” he said. “I am not worried about the velo in spring. But I can tell by the swings how well the ball is taking off out of my hand and it’s right where it needs to be.”

Norris said he gets in trouble when he tries to force velocity. He grips the ball tightly and ends up throwing more of a cutter.

“The thing is, I am not letting it eat yet, I’m not trying to throw hard,” he said. “But I can still get the life and you can build off that. That’s how I felt at the end of 2016 when I started to throw the ball well finally.

“I wasn’t trying to throw hard, it was just coming out good. I remember a start in Kansas City, I was throwing my fastballs by guys at 92 mph. Then I kind of built off that and the velo started climbing.”

The only time Norris showed any negative emotion was when he walked the left-handed hitting Freddie Freeman. With the count 2-2, catcher James McCann called for a slider. Norris shook to a fastball and missed the strike zone up with two in a row.

“That’s a good hitter,” Norris said. “I could’ve thrown the slider there but I wanted to work on my fastball up. I was mad about that.”

Control issue

Liriano, making his second spring start, threw 49 pitches and 26 strikes in his three scoreless innings.  He allowed two hits and two walks, with four strikeouts.

“I was just working on my breaking stuff, my change-up and slider,” Liriano said. “My last start I didn’t get a chance to throw too many. I was missing a little bit with my two-seamer to the right-handed hitters.”

His fastball was firm – 92 mph on the two-seam and 94 on the four-seam – but of the 25 he threw, only 11 were strikes. It’s an important pitch for him, one he needs to especially locate on the inner half of the plate to right-handed batters.

“That’s the one I’m trying to get more consistent with,” he said. “That’s going to make my change-up and slider better. I need to get that going. I am trying to throw it as much as I can. I feel like I will get it working for my next start.”

He struck out the side in the third – the first two were swinging strike threes (fastball and change-up); the third, against Freeman, was a called third strike on a 3-2 change-up.

“Right around 50 pitches; I am pretty much where I would be if I had started in camp on time,” said Liriano, who was signed two weeks ago. “I am right where I need to be.”