A crafty, effective Liriano can win -- but can hardly wow

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 29, 2009 - 12:48 AM

Don't look for the wicked stuff of '06 to emerge. But the kid got the job done with less heat and more precision.

Francisco Liriano
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Twins starter Francisco Liriano pitched 62/3 innings, giving up two earned runs and seven hits in a no-decision.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Frankie Franchise became Frankie Finesse on Tuesday night.

That's encouraging for anyone looking for immediate indications that Francisco Liriano will break out of his month-long slump.

That's discouraging for anyone harboring hopes that Liriano will someday return to his dominant form of 2006.

Before the 2009 season, at least one ESPN analyst predicted Liriano would contend for a Cy Young Award in 2009. This is the latest reason not to pay attention to national analysts when educating yourself about the local team. Anybody who watched Liriano's last start of 2008, or watched him this spring, or watched him in early April, would have tempered their optimism.

With a calmer version of his once-violent delivery and pitches that glide rather than sizzle, Liriano is no longer the dominant pitcher we like to remember. Today, he ranks among the many big-league pitchers whose success is determined as much by pitch selection and location as raw stuff.

Liriano zigged and zagged through the Rays lineup on Tuesday night in the Twins' 4-3 victory at the Metrodome. He did not get a decision, but gave up seven hits, two walks and two runs in 6 2/3 innings in his best outing of the season.

With a fastball topping out at 93 miles per hour and a slider and changeup that kept the Rays guessing, Liriano took a shutout into the sixth inning.

Sound good? Sure -- Liriano did what managers beg starters to do every night of the season, put their team in position to win.

You never felt, though, that Liriano was capable of dominating, never felt that he was waking the echoes of 2006.

You can take this as an insult or a backhanded compliment, depending on how you feel about the art of pitching: Rarely has Liriano displayed such mediocre stuff, and been in position for a victory.

He lowered his ERA from 7.06 to 6.04. If you watched live rather than relying on the boxscore, though, he never looked as impressive as the results indicated, even if postgame reviews emphasized the positive.

"I was excited for Frankie," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The ball was really coming out of his hand really good. He's been feeling a little rough, but that was pretty good."

The Rays weren't the toughest test for Liriano. They are 1-8 vs. lefthanded starters this season, and their primary righthanded threat -- the exceptional Evan Longoria -- helped out Liriano with a strikeout and a double-play grounder.

The Rays earned their first baserunner on Gabe Kapler's two-out double in the second, and mounted their first true threat in the fifth.

Willy Aybar led off with a double to left, then moved to third on Kapler's grounder. Dioner Navarro hit a grounder to short.

Twins shortstop Nick Punto fielded the ball and looked surprised to see Aybar going home. Punto threw him out, easily.

Jason Bartlett hooked a single to left, then Liriano got Akinori Iwamura to ground to second.

In the sixth, Liriano walked leadoff hitter B.J. Upton, who stole second. Carl Crawford hit a looping liner to left-center, and Jason Kubel, subbing in the outfield so Justin Morneau could rest his legs as the designated hitter, made a nice running catch.

Upton stole third on Twins catcher Jose Morales, then Longoria jumped on a nothing fastball down the middle and banked it off the baggie in right, reducing the Twins' lead to 2-1.

Carlos Pena blooped a single to left, Longoria hesitated and took third, and Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson jumped out of the dugout to visit the mound.

Aybar lined a sacrifice fly to right, making it 2-2. That came on Liriano's 81st pitch.

Liriano would not finish the seventh. He retired the first two batters, then allowed consecutive singles. His last pitch was an 88-mph fastball that Iwamura yanked into right field, moving the potential tying run to second.

That was Liriano's 96th pitch. Anyone wishing to remember what a lefthander with dominant stuff looks like had to wait until the eighth inning, when Jose "Can You See Your Feet?" Mijares walked Crawford, then struck out the side.

"I felt better throwing the ball today," Liriano said. "I was hitting my spots. I'm very close."

For Liriano, the results on Tuesday were more than adequate. The pitches themselves left something to be desired, if you remember when Frankie's nickname was "Franchise."

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. jsouhan@startribune.com

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Francisco Liriano