Former American League All-Star Francisco Liriano took a big step back toward the Major Leagues on Tuesday afternoon, fanning nine batters over six innings as Triple-A Indianapolis routed visiting Gwinnett, 9-2, to complete a four-game sweep.
Making his fourth appearance of the season and second with the Indians, Liriano allowed one run on four hits. The southpaw threw 82 pitches -- 60 for strikes -- and did not walk a batter.
"He had a really nice mix of pitches today," Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer said. "He was throwing his fastball 90- to 94-mph and had his secondary pitches working well."
"Liriano and our other starters have been keeping us where we need to be," said Indianapolis shortstop Josh Harrison, who had three doubles in the game. "Then we can turn it over to the bullpen, which is the best I've seen in a long time."
The 29-year-old Liriano spent parts of seven seasons with the Minnesota Twins, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 2006 and 14-10 with a 3.62 mark in 2010. He pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox on May 3, 2011, but struggled with the Twins in 2012, going 3-10 before being traded to Chicago on July 28. Liriano was a combined 6-12 with a 5.34 ERA in 34 outings (28 starts) with the Twins and White Sox last year.
Liriano agreed in principle to a two-year, $12.75 million contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in December, but the hurler failed a physical after suffering an injury to his right (non-throwing) arm on Christmas Day. The two sides agreed on a restructured deal in January that guarantees $1 million and includes performance-based incentives.
Liriano began the rehab process with Class A Advanced Bradenton on April 15, striking out six over three perfect frames against Jupiter. Moving on to Double-A Altoona five days later, the Dominican native was roughed up for four runs on four hits in 2 2/3 innings. He won his first outing for Indianapolis on April 25 after striking out eight over five frames of one-run ball.
After throwing 79 pitches against Lehigh Valley last Thursday, Liriano was ready to stretch out against Gwinnett. He ran into a spot of trouble early, giving up a leadoff single to Corey Wimberly in the first before plunking Todd Cunningham to put two men on with nobody out.
The veteran lefty got Gwinnett outfielder Joey Terdoslavich to bounce into a 1-4-3 double play, then fanned slugger Ernesto Mejia, who leads the IL with eight homers, to end the threat.
As an infielder, Harrison appreciated Liriano's poise on Terdoslavich's comebacker.
"It was a hard-hit ball and he made a nice play to snag it, then he waited a beat for [second baseman Ivan] De Jesus to establish position. That's what you want when you're trying to turn [a double play]."
Liriano (2-0) set down the next six batters in a row -- four by strikeout -- before yielding a leadoff single to Cunningham in the fourth. Gwinnett got on the board in the fifth when Joe Leonard tripled and scored on a sacrifice fly by Sean Kazmar, and Cunningham added the G-Braves' fourth hit with another single in the sixth. Leonard was the only Gwinnett hitter Liriano allowed to reach third base.
"His command, particularly of the fastball, was better today than in his last start for us. He threw some really good innings," Filer said.
According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Liriano is expected to throw 100 pitches in a third start for Indianapolis on May 5, putting him in line to join the Pirates rotation on May 10. Left-hander Jonathan Sanchez, who is 0-3 with a 11.85 ERA in five appearances (four starts), was designated for assignment by the Pirates on Tuesday.
The Indians scored in each of the first four frames, including a five-spot in the third to blow the game open. Harrison led the attack with three doubles and two runs scored, while De Jesus went 2-for-3 with a three-run triple.
Liriano, who has pitched exclusively in the American League in the Majors, was much rustier with the bat than on the mound. He bunted into a force out in the second, reached on an error by Gwinnett catcher Jose Yepez in the third and struck out bunting foul in the fifth. He's now 2-for-24 in his pro career.
The Indianapolis bullpen took over in the seventh, with Kris Johnson, Jose Contreras and Mike Zagurski each striking out a pair in one inning apiece. With 15 strikeouts in the game, the Indians pitching staff ranks second in the IL to Durham with 242 over 27 games. The team's 2.58 ERA is far and away the best on the circuit.
Gwinnett starter Daniel Rodriguez fell to 1-2 with the loss. He allowed seven runs -- six earned -- on four hits and six walks while striking out three over three innings. Despite tossing 12 1/3 scoreless innings in his previous two starts, Rodriguez's ERA stands at 7.48.
The four-game sweep completed a 9-1 home stand for Indianapolis, which improved to 20-7 on the season. The Indians have won their last six games in a row while allowing just nine runs.