Kissimmee, Fla. — Getting accustomed to a Francisco Liriano start might, for Tigers Nation, require some patience.
This is not a strike-strike-strike, go-get-'em pitcher who gobbles up innings as if they were Reese’s Treats.
He threw 97 pitches in five innings Wednesday evening against the Braves. And forgive those who felt as if he had gone more like nine frames, given the lengthy at-bats and five walks he dispensed along the way.
But remember there was a reason the Tigers found him still stacked in the free-agent grocery aisle last month. It explains that one-year deal for $4 million, just as 53 walks in 97 innings was the basis for Liriano, 34, still being available when the Tigers were hunting for another starter.
Liriano had his pluses Wednesday in a rare evening Grapefruit League game at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, which went to the Braves, 3-2, after they got a run in the eighth against Warwick Saupold.
He struck out four batters and, as usual, his secondary stuff shined as he departed after the fifth inning with his pitch-count crowding 100. Liriano’s change-up and slider bailed him out when his fastball simply would not behave.
He allowed only four hits: a long triple to center by Rio Ruiz, a RBI double from Preston Tucker, as well as singles from Nick Markakis and Ozzie Albies.
“Not happy with the walks,” Liriano said afterward in the visitors’ clubhouse. “Got behind. Not throwing the fastball the way I wanted.
He was more pleased with his slider-change combination, which, ironically, is generally the tougher inventory for a pitcher to control.
But dig into Wednesday night’s first inning and the anatomy of Liriano’s challenges are clear.
He got the leadoff batter before Albie spanked a single to center. He next walked, back-to-back, Freddie Freeman and Kurt Suzuki as his fastball decided to jump the fence.
Liriano turned to his off-speed breaking balls and nailed the next two batters to leave the bases loaded. He got Markakis on a change-up, and Tucker on a slider, both for swinging strikeouts.
It was a pattern than continued for much of the evening.
“The last two innings, I was throwing more change-ups,” Liriano said. “It helped me stay back more with my fastball and not overthrow.”
Why the fastball has been so tough to contain, Liriano can’t quite answer.
“I’m trying to figure it out right now,” he said. “It’s cutting in on righties (right-handed batters). It’s something that never happened before.
“Physically, I feel fine. My arm feels great.”
Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire conceded Liriano and the Tigers might have preferred “crisper” innings, but he was more upbeat than the pitcher about Wednesday’s effort.
“He was working on things tonight — two-seamers, four-seamers — which is what veteran pitchers do in spring camp,” Gardenhire said. “I thought it was good work.
“He got himself in some jams. He creates some things, but the exciting thing about Frankie is he can get out of ‘em.”
Gardenhire, of course, saw lots of this during his and Liriano’s days with the Twins.
“He also can get ‘em (hitters) to swing at three of the ugliest pitches in the world,” the skipper said.
The Tigers got their two runs off a series of stingy Braves pitchers who had allowed them only five hits through eighth innings.
Mikie Mahtook was responsible for one, thanks to his first home run of the Grapefruit League season, a 400-foot blast to left-center against Brandon McCarthy in the fourth.
They had scored a first-inning run on Leonys Martin’s leadoff single, which was followed by a high chopper to second by Alexi Amarista. Albies, who probably wouldn’t have gotten Amarista had he waited for the big bounce, tried to short-hop the ball, which caromed off his glove for a tough error, scoring Martin.
Chad Bell and Drew VerHagen each pitched 1-2-3 follow-up innings after Liriano departed.
AROUND THE HORN
VerHagen, like Bell, had a strikeout as part of his single-inning stint.
“I love his angle, the way the ball snaps,” Gardenhire said of VerHagen, the right-hander with a big arm and perhaps, finally, the right role as he has settled on relief after last year’s mission to become a starter.
… Victor Reyes continued cementing his place on next week’s 25-man roster with a single, and a deep drive to left that nearly became his first home run with the Tigers.
“He’s staying on the ball,” Gardenhire said of a 23-year-old outfielder the Tigers snagged in December’s Rule 5 draft. “He’s using the whole field. He’s letting the ball travel (get deep into the strike zone).
“As he gets older and stronger, this guy has a chance to be something special.”