PITTSBURGH -- Over the past three years, Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano has made a living outside the strike zone. On Saturday night he set up shop over the plate.Liriano pounded the strike zone for 6 2/3 innings in a 5-1 win over the Reds on a rainy night at PNC
PITTSBURGH -- Over the past three years, Pirates left-hander Francisco Liriano has made a living outside the strike zone. On Saturday night he set up shop over the plate.
Liriano pounded the strike zone for 6 2/3 innings in a 5-1 win over the Reds on a rainy night at PNC Park. It was his longest start of the season and easily his best since a 10-strikeout performance on Opening Day. It was also his first walk-free start of at least six innings since June 12, 2011.
Liriano threw 72 of his 109 pitches for strikes, an uncharacteristically -- but intentionally -- high number for a pitcher who worked outside the zone more than anybody in baseball from 2013 to 2015.
"That was an area of focus for him in his bullpens, trying to pound the zone better, more pitch efficiency," manager Clint Hurdle said. "On a night that [had] less than ideal conditions, I thought he handled his mound work very, very well."
Liriano allowed one run on five hits and struck out six, finishing off four batters with his fastball, two with his slider and one with a changeup.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Liriano has thrown by far the fewest pitches (36.1 percent) inside the strike zone. He walked 3.8 batters per nine innings from 2013 to 2015, all while re-emerging as a top-of-the-rotation arm for the Pirates. He threw enough strikes to force hitters to swing at his off-speed pitches, particularly his slider.
In his first four starts, Liriano struggled with his command. Only 56 percent of his pitches were strikes, and he entered the night leading the National League with 17 walks in 21 1/3 innings. He was inefficient, and he couldn't get as deep into games as he set out to do in Spring Training.
That wasn't the case on Saturday night. What changed?
"Getting ahead in the count," said Liriano, who threw a first-pitch strike to 17 of the 27 batters he faced. "Good command of the fastball and not trying to do too much -- hit my spot and go from there."
Liriano wanted to get hitters out of the batter's box after three pitches, preferably fewer. After a few outings in which he battled his fastball command, he was better equipped to do that and, as a result, nearly completed seven innings.
"That's what I want," he said. "You want to go deep into the game as much as you can."
After some shaky performances in April, the top of the Pirates' rotation appears to be on track. Gerrit Cole hasn't missed a beat, Juan Nicasio put together seven strong innings on Friday night and Liriano looked more like himself on Saturday night.
"He's done it before," Hurdle said. "We've seen this outing from him before. Quick and efficient. A lot of strikes. No walks."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.