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Saturday, October 5, 2013
Updated: October 6, 5:27 PM ET
Francisco Liriano: The winning ticket

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

PITTSBURGH -- The man who will start the first home division series game in Pittsburgh Pirates history is the baseball version of nailing the Powerball.

Cha-chingggg.

Seriously, if you work in the front office of any team, is there anything better than signing a pitcher for a million bucks who magically, unexpectedly turns himself into a real, live Cy Young candidate right before your very contact lenses?

Well, it happened. It happened to the Pirates with a lottery ticket named Francisco Liriano.

Francisco Liriano
Francisco Liriano, star of the NL wild-card game, takes on the Cardinals on Sunday.

And now, one sensational 16-win season later, with Tuesday's humongous wild-card game performance tossed in for Pittsburgh's euphoric amusement, it will be this 29-year-old left-hander's turn to pitch Game 3 of the NLDS on Sunday, against a Cardinals team he dominated all year (3-0, 0.75 ERA in three starts).

We can hear people all around America looking at Liriano, just one season removed from a 6-12, 5.34 ERA nightmare for the Twins and White Sox, and saying to themselves: "Boy, the Pirates sure lucked out with that guy."

Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Well, it might look like luck if you don't examine this saga closely enough. But let us assure you. Stuff like this -- turnarounds like this -- never just happen out of the blue, like your 7-year-old finding a $50 bill lying on the sidewalk.

They happen when the right club finds the right reclamation project and matches that reclamation project with a group of really smart, talented people and everything works.

Well, that happened too. It happened to Liriano and the Pirates. But not by some lucky lightning bolt of good fortune.

It happened because there might be no organization in baseball right now that does a better job of bringing broken pitchers into its Miraculous Pitching Delivery Tuneup Shop and fixing them up like new. Or better than new.

Really. Think about it. Think about all the pitchers who sputtered into Pittsburgh and turned into major cogs in the Sid Bream Curse Buster Express: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Jeanmar Gomez ...

And Francisco Liriano.

Especially Francisco Liriano.

The story of how he reached this special place, where an entire city thinks that sending him to the mound in October is as close to Baseball Nirvana as watching their 75,819th replay of Bill Mazeroski's homer, is an amazing tale.

Originally agreed to a two-year, $12.75 million deal in December. Unagreed to that deal after winning the Goofy Offseason Injury of the Year competition at Christmas by breaking his right arm (aka his other arm) while fooling around with his kids.

That left poor Liriano in limbo for another month and a half, until he settled with the Pirates on another deal for that meager $1 million guarantee, with the rest of his earning power contingent upon a return to health.

At the time, that bizarre injury looked like a disaster.

Little did he know -- little did we know -- it would turn out to be the best thing to happen to Liriano in years.

Francisco Liriano
He might not have pitched at all this year, so Liriano has plenty to be thankful for in Sunday's NLDS start.

"I think everything happens for a reason," he said Saturday, on the eve of his third career postseason start. "I broke my arm, but everything happens for a reason. I didn't think I was going to play this year, so I'm surprised by the year I have had this year. Just thank God for the opportunity and the Pirates to give me a chance to be able to pitch. Everything has been amazing for me, and I'm very thankful."

It seems crazy, in retrospect, that he is thankful for the injury itself. But it turned out that that, too, was a blessing in a painful disguise.

"One of the big things that broke right for him is that, because of the injury, he had such a long spring training," said Jim Benedict, a special assistant to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and a former minor league pitching coordinator who gets involved in special player-development and pitching-delivery projects such as Liriano.

"The changes that he made -- we couldn't have done that if he'd been in big league camp," Benedict went on. "But because he spent so much time in extended spring training, he had time to get his delivery right and build his arm up slowly."

That phrase, "get his delivery right," seems so simple when you hear it in a vacuum. But in Liriano's case, nothing about his delivery has ever been simple -- or even repeatable -- for long stretches of his often-brilliant, often-train-wreckish career.

"If you're a guy who strikes out 15 and doesn't walk anybody one game, and then the next game you walk seven and strike out two, and then you compare those two games, you're really seeing two different guys," Benedict said. "So when you get him on your team, the first thing you say is, 'Let's talk about this.'"

So this spring, in the serene setting of Bradenton, Fla., Liriano sat down and had that chat -- with Benedict, with Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, with bullpen coach Euclides Rojas and with the Pirates' Gulf Coast League pitching coach Miguel Bonilla, who was able to speak comfortably with Liriano in Spanish and translate for the rest of the group.

What they all decided was that Liriano's biggest issue was his inability to stay back on his left leg with any consistency -- a delivery glitch that would cause him to rush, lose command and find himself unable to fix it, even when he knew what he was doing wrong.

Eventually, they settled on a term that everyone could relate to -- especially Liriano -- and that would always be there to remind him what he needed to do to "stay back."

The phrase they chose was "right back pocket."

That wasn't because they wanted him to think about reaching for his wallet. It was because they wanted him to remember that if he would just lift his "right back pocket," he would stay back on his left leg a little longer in his delivery. Then everything else would almost magically fall into place.

"That just keeps his head in line," Benedict said. "And when he keeps his head in line, he's got a lot conquered. So it's not just that one thing; it's what that one thing did to the rest of his body."

Had this been an ordinary spring training, he would have had just six weeks to grasp that concept while trying to build up his pitch count to get ready for the season. Instead, he had an extra month to perfect his mechanics, gradually build strength and ease his way back.

Francisco Liriano
The key to his delivery? That "right back pocket," of course.

When he finally returned to the big leagues on May 11, he was a different guy -- even better, in some ways, than the 22-year-old phenom with the lumber-eating slider who rocketed onto the scene with the Twins in 2006.

Liriano's numbers in that 2006 season (12-3, 2.16 ERA, with 144 strikeouts in 121 innings) might have been way more eyeball-popping, but he didn't have the command of the devastating three-pitch repertoire (fastball/slider/change) that he has now. He also had a delivery so violent that it led his blowing out his elbow just 20 starts into his big league career.

But now, as he nears his 30th birthday later this month, he's more ace than human highlight reel. And that's exactly what the Pirates were hoping would happen when they rolled the dice on him last winter.

"You have to give the man credit for the heart, the conviction, the intent that he put into everything," his manager, Clint Hurdle, said Saturday. "That is what really, I think, has given that degree of separation from what we might have thought we were going to get, to what he has actually done and performed and shown himself capable of."

Liriano missed qualifying for the ERA title by one inning. Had he qualified, he would have had the third-lowest opponent OPS (.611), third-best opponent slugging percentage (.314), fourth-lowest opponent batting average (.224) and fifth-best ERA (3.02) among National League left-handers. Only Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner beat him in all those categories.

As Game 3 draws closer, nobody has to remind the Cardinals that Liriano was especially devastating against them. They hit a ridiculous .127/.179/.165 against him with zero homers and two runs in 24 innings.

So if he wasn't the best free-agent signing of the offseason, by any team, he was definitely the best million-dollar free-agent bargain. But there's a difference between stumbling into a free-agent find like that and doing what it takes to make it happen. And it's clear now that the Pirates didn't stumble into anything.

"This is an organizational victory," Benedict said. "From the acquisition by our front office to the [revisions to his] approach to the guys on the major league [coaching] side, this was an organizational group effort. And he's taken it and run with it. So this has been good. Everything about it has been good."

If this run of brilliance continues on the most important Sunday afternoon in October that the Pirates have experienced in two decades, it'll get even better.