Evolution of Liriano continues, with more pitches in his arsenal

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2010 - 6:28 AM

There is "pitching" and there is "throwing," and Francisco Liriano has not had a reputation for pitching his way out of trouble.

As a four-month phenom in 2006, he overpowered difficult situations by throwing a 97-miles-per-hour fastball and an unhittable slider. As a helpful starter in the 2008 stretch drive, he tried to do the same with lesser versions of those pitches. As a member of the rotation for 4 1/2 months in 2009, he was a mess.

On Wednesday, Liriano pitched his way through four threats in seven innings and was the hometown guy most responsible for a 6-0 victory over Cleveland that allowed the Twins to avoid the following:

Being swept at home in a three- or four-game series by an under .500 team for the first time since May 2008; and being swept for the first time at Target Field.

The first two games of this series were so ugly, what with the Scott Baker clunker on Monday and the Joe Mauer scandal on Tuesday, that giving the Indians a head start might have sent the home team quickly into another funk.

To prevent this, Liriano had to throw a double-play ball after allowing the first two batters to reach in the second. And he struck out the dangerous rookie, Carlos Santana, to strand two runners in the third.

The Twins finally ended the nonsense with four runs in the bottom of that inning. They could have had more if Delmon Young had been stopped at third, rather than getting thrown out at home by several feet.

This was the first of numerous blown scoring chances for the Twins -- more evidence of a clutch-hitting flaw that has been lost in the angst over a rotation that went 60 percent putrid.

On Wednesday, Liriano's impressive pitching turned those missed chances into a minor annoyance. He kept the Indians scoreless through a couple later threats:

The bases were loaded with one out in the fifth, when Liriano threw a sinker to Jayson Nix for a pitcher-home-first double play. He worked around a single, a walk and a wild pitch with a pair of strikeouts to end the seventh, and his afternoon.

"I'd give Francisco a 'B' for today, and a 'B' for the season," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "When he gets on top [with his delivery] and mixes in those other pitches, he's been very good. It's only when he rushes -- or gets slider-happy -- that he's gotten himself in trouble."

Liriano has a good changeup and the best sinker on the Twins' staff. Yet, he had a long-term tendency to fire full-bore fastballs in the general direction of the plate, and to lean fully on the slider when in a jam.

Four years ago, it did a hitter no good to sit on Liriano's slider. It went sweeping away from lefties and diving at a righthander's shoetops at 88 miles per hour. No chance.

Now, the slider is 3-4 mph less, and you actually see it hang on occasion, and teams such as the Tigers have waited for it. He gave up six runs to Detroit on June 28 -- his worst start in Target Field -- and then lasted only 1 2/3 innings at Detroit the Saturday before the All-Star Game.

Anderson liked most of what he saw from Liriano on Wednesday, but the coach's favorite moment was the first pitch to the righthanded Nix to escape the fifth.

"He got on top and let it go, and the ball went like this," Anderson said.

He made a sideways and downward gesture with his right hand and said, "There aren't many sinkers with better action than that."

Back in 2006, Liriano was getting 55 percent ground balls when a ball was put in play. A big reason was hitters were fighting for their lives just to do that -- put the ball in play -- and avoid striking out.

That ratio fell to 42 percent in 2008 and to 40 percent last season. Now, he's back at 52 percent grounders, and for a different reason than in '06:

It's four years after surgery and he's gotten the hint that the fastball isn't the same, and the slider can be hit, and that important outs can be gotten with a changeup and particularly a sinker.

Patrick Reusse can be heard noon-4 weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP. • preusse@startribune.com

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