The follow-up to Francisco Liriano's outstanding 2013 season wasn't looking good in mid-July, when a month-plus stint on the disabled list carried a forgettable first half to the cusp of the All-Star break.
He's healthy these days -- and so are the Pittsburgh Pirates' playoff chances.Riding a 16-inning scoreless streak, Liriano looks to continue his impressive second half Wednesday night against visiting Boston as Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo makes his much-anticipated major league debut for the Red Sox.Liriano (5-10, 3.53 ERA) was the NL's comeback player of the year in 2013 after going 16-8 with a 3.02 ERA, but that became a distant memory after he went 1-6 with a 4.60 ERA in his first 14 outings before hitting the disabled list in June with a strained oblique.Now, it's those first-half struggles that seem so long ago. The left-hander is 4-3 with a 2.22 ERA since the break, with nine of the 20 runs he's allowed coming in one ugly mid-August start.Liriano has allowed two or fewer in all the others, following up six scoreless innings against the Cubs on Sept. 6 with eight shutout frames in a 4-1 win at Philadelphia on Thursday."I feel great, like I had pretty good command," Liriano said. "I feel great physically and mentally. Everything is getting better, location-wise. I'm just trying to get better every start."He's struck out an NL-best 10.43 per nine innings in the second half, including 12 in his last outing. Nine of those Phillies went down on his slider, which is causing hitters to swing and miss 44.3 percent of the time -- the fifth-highest rate for an individual pitch from a starter.Not far behind is his changeup, at 43.8 percent."It's just a really late break," catcher Russell Martin told MLB's official website of Liriano's slider. "By the time the hitter is making up his mind to swing, it hasn't broke yet. In the last six to eight feet, that's when the tightness and the depth comes in the pitch. Out of the hand, it looks like a fastball. Same thing with the changeup, everything looks like a fastball coming at you."That should make for a fascinating matchup with Castillo, who's expected to start in center field less than a month after signing a seven-year, $72.5 million contract. Castillo has spent the last few weeks playing for various Boston affiliates, culminating when he hit a homer Tuesday night for Pawtucket to lead off the Triple-A championship game."He's an electric player and there's a lot of skills here, it's explosive, it's quick twitch," said manager John Farrell, who plans to pick his spots with Castillo's playing time over the next few weeks. "And we're looking forward to seeing him in this environment."Pittsburgh (80-70) continued to enjoy a friendly stretch of schedule with the arrival of the Red Sox, its fourth straight series against a last-place team. Martin and Starling Marte homered in Tuesday's 4-0 victory, and the Pirates' ninth win in 11 games kept them 1 1/2 games ahead of Milwaukee in the wild-card race while pulling them within 2 1/2 of Central-leading St. Louis.Clay Buchholz (8-8, 5.19) wasn't fooling anyone coming out of the break, going 1/3 with a 6.91 ERA in his first seven second-half starts. But Boston (66-85) has won his last four, with the right-hander getting the decision in his last three behind a 1.66 ERA.He held playoff-contending Kansas City to three runs over 6 1/3 innings in a 6-3 road win Thursday, looking good locating a fastball that saw an uptick in velocity from recent starts."(Location and velocity) are really what's allowed Clay to really get back (and) regain the form that we saw last year," Farrell said.Buchholz has never faced the Pirates.