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From Opening Day forward, Liriano determined

Bucs southpaw out to prove himself, remain healthy, build on comeback campaign

BRADENTON, Fla. -- When the Pirates broke their Spring Training camp a year ago, they left Francisco Liriano behind. This time, Liriano was up front, leading the 2014 Bucs into Pittsburgh.

It couldn't be more different for Liriano. At this time last year, he was trying to build up his moneymaker left arm, and trying to keep the fractured right one from getting in the way. On this Opening Day, instead of getting impatient, he'll get the ball.

There was no way he was going to let a late-spring tweak to a groin muscle stray him from the mound. If it had, even briefly, the message would have been too troubling.

"It was very important to me," Liriano said of keeping the Opening Day date. "Last year, I started on the disabled list, so I didn't want the same thing to happen this year."

Liriano is on a mission. He has been dogged -- not entirely unfairly -- by criticism of his inconsistency. Season to season, game to game, often inning to inning. For him to end one season on a dizzying height and begin the next unable to pitch would have cued all the "same old Liriano" doubters.

He is obsessed with proving he is a new man, at 30 and entering his ninth big league season ready to fulfill the enormous potential he showed as a 23-year-old in 2006, before being waylaid by Tommy John surgery. Liriano resumed his career in '08, but since then had only good weeks until putting together the 2013 season that earned him National League Comeback Player of the Year honors.

It was not the first time he bagged that prize, a rarity in itself. And nothing better sums up the Liriano roller coaster than the fact he got the award in the AL by following a 5-13, 5.80 ERA season in 2009 with a 14-10 record and a 3.62 ERA … and the next season, he was back to 9-10, 5.09.

He wants to assure the Pirates that no such flashbacks are in the works.

"My whole goal this year is to stay healthy, then try to do the same thing I did last year," he said. "I want to be more consistent, try to go deeper every game. The main thing is staying healthy, then we'll see what happens.

"Because being hurt has been a big part of my up-and-down seasons. As long as I feel healthy, I think I'll be OK."

Liriano has shown the Pirates a side of himself that belies his prior reputation.

"He's a man you can depend on," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "And I share with these players that the greatest ability you can have day in and day out is your dependability. And we have that in Francisco."

In Liriano, they have that most valuable baseball weapon, a truly unhittable pitcher when he throws his best pitch on his best days. For Liriano, that pitch is a slider that can make the toughest left-handed hitters look helpless.

In that vein, the most indelible memory of Liriano's 2013 season occurred on Sept. 8, in a PNC Park start against Cincinnati. In the seventh inning, Jay Bruce, after having struck out on three pitches in his previous at-bat, resorted to bunting against Liriano. This same Bruce two weeks earlier had hit two homers off Clayton Kershaw, the NL Cy Young Award-winning southpaw.

And there was the Reds right fielder, waving a white flag at Liriano.

It was one of the more vivid confirmations of the faith of general manager Neal Huntington, who worked hard to reel in Liriano with a renegotiated contract following the household mishap in which he had cracked his right arm. Huntington and his staff believed in that left arm; they felt it could have big results, but probably did not aim high enough.

"Liriano met the highest possible projection we could have had for him," Huntington said.

In every imaginable way, Liriano came up huge last season. In a rotation that generally leaned heavily on the bullpen, he went seven-plus innings in nearly half of his starts (11 times out of 26).

All that is left for him to prove is that 2013 wasn't another spike on his chart, but his new normal.

"I plan to try to go out there and be the same guy I was last year and do everything I need to get better and help the team win some ballgames," Liriano said.

Tom Singer is a reporter for and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. He can also be found on Twitter @Tom_Singer

Pittsburgh Pirates, Francisco Liriano