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Liriano embraces opportunity to start for Tigers

Veteran glad to be reunited with Gardenhire on team lefty used to torment
MLB.com @beckjason

LAKELAND, Fla. -- Francisco Liriano spent the first half of his career tormenting the Tigers, one of the bright, young hopes on the Twins. That changed over the last five years, as the innings piled up, Liriano bounced around and surgeries sapped some of the strength from his left arm.

Still, the sight of Liriano wearing the Olde English D on Saturday morning -- having signed a one-year contract to bolster Detroit's rebuilt pitching staff -- was an odd sight.

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LAKELAND, Fla. -- Francisco Liriano spent the first half of his career tormenting the Tigers, one of the bright, young hopes on the Twins. That changed over the last five years, as the innings piled up, Liriano bounced around and surgeries sapped some of the strength from his left arm.

Still, the sight of Liriano wearing the Olde English D on Saturday morning -- having signed a one-year contract to bolster Detroit's rebuilt pitching staff -- was an odd sight.

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"It feels a little bit different," Liriano admitted.

It's a sign of the transitory nature for pitchers as they age. Yet, as the 34-year-old left-hander settles into his fourth team in three years, and the sixth of his career, both he and the Tigers would love to find a semblance of that talented young southpaw from a decade ago that manager Ron Gardenhire remembers.

"I really believe in '06, he was as good [as], if not better than, even [Johan] Santana that year," Gardenhire said. "He was one of the best pitchers in the league that year, and he's bounced back. We know what he does: He keeps throwing the slider in the dirt and they keep swinging, because it looks like a fastball. It's amazing."

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At the very least, Liriano wants to prove that his struggles last season aren't indicative of the pitcher he is. The key to that part is health.

Liriano missed a month last season with left shoulder inflammation, but he said the issue was in his neck.

"I think, for me, I was working out too heavy -- too much lifting and not stretching enough," he said.

Liriano returned to action at midseason, struggled in Toronto's rotation, then moved to the bullpen in time for an Aug. 1 trade to Houston, where he filled a lefty relief role for the eventual World Series champions. He got his first World Series ring for the trouble, and appreciated the opportunity. But he wanted to find an opportunity to compete as a starter when he hit free agency. The veteran had to wait for it, and admitted sitting at home as Spring Training began was tough for him. He threw in Miami, including for the Tigers, waiting for the right chance.

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"Some teams wanted me to be in the bullpen. Some teams wanted me to do a little bit of both," he said. "I feel playing with Gardy, I think it makes it easy for me. Having the opportunity to start here, it's very important for me to try to come back from last year and try to do everything to win some ballgames this year."

Liriano knows something about bounce-back seasons. He's the only player to win Comeback Player of the Year twice -- having captured the American League award with the Twins in 2010, before winning the National League version with the Pirates after his 16-win season in '13.

Both times, Liriano helped his team to the postseason, as he did during the last two campaigns following midseason trades. Pitching the Tigers to the playoffs isn't an expectation, but if he can help stabilize a young pitching staff -- and maybe draw another round of midseason-trade interest -- he might be a boon for the club he used to torment.

"Fortunately, I feel healthy," he said. "I'll try to find a way to stay healthy the whole season and pitch as much as I can."

Jason Beck has covered the Tigers for MLB.com since 2002. Read Beck's Blog, follow him on Twitter @beckjason and Facebook.

Detroit Tigers, Francisco Liriano