FORT MYERS, FLA. - Francisco Liriano tossed five no-hit innings against Pittsburgh on Sunday, and while it was only a spring training start against a skeleton Pirates lineup, it was another hopeful sign for the Twins.
Maybe, just maybe, the 2010 Liriano is back.
It's not just the number of hits Liriano has given up in 13 innings this spring (six) or his ERA (2.77). These are the more telling numbers: two walks, 18 strikeouts.
Liriano had six strikeouts and one walk while throwing just 62 pitches as the Twins defeated the Pirates 10-0 at Hammond Stadium.
Asked if this feels like two years ago, when he went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA after a dominant spring, Liriano said: "Yeah, basically I feel healthy. Nothing's bothering me like last year, so it feels pretty good."
Last year, Liriano hurt his left shoulder before camp and never fully recovered, going 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA. There were plenty of warning signs during spring training, too.
The lefthander struggled with his command, recording 23 strikeouts and nine walks -- for a 2.56 K/BB ratio -- in 18 2/3 innings. One year earlier, Liriano had breezed through the spring with 30 strikeouts and five walks, for a 6.0 K/BB ratio.
This spring, that number is a ridiculous 9.0. Liriano said he is focused on "limiting walks, trying to go deeper in games, throw less pitches per batter, and trying to throw first-pitch strikes. I hope they swing early like they were today."
Well, that's a chicken-and-egg thing. When Liriano was walking a career-worst 5.0 batters per nine innings last year, hitters were bound to take a more patient approach. On Sunday, six of Pittsburgh's 16 plate appearances against Liriano ended with fewer than two strikes.
Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson credited catcher Joe Mauer for knowing how to slow Liriano down and keep him from rushing his delivery. Liriano still missed badly with a few fastballs, topping out at 94 miles per hour on the radar gun.
But Mauer kept calling for changeups, and Liriano obliged. Besides being a pretty solid pitch in its own right, Liriano's changeup can have the effect of slowing him down. Anderson also likes that it keeps Liriano from overusing his world-class slider.
"He threw some nasty sliders today," bench coach Scott Ullger said. "The hitters couldn't tell it was a slider the way they were swinging at it."
Anderson added: "But if they see it all the time, it's not going to be that deceptive."
This could be Liriano's last season with the Twins. At 28, he is making $5.5 million and can become a free agent at season's end. Will this be the year it all clicks for him?
"To me the key is what Frankie said when he came out," Anderson said. "He made a lot of good pitches in the fifth [inning] and he says, 'I'm just trying to be easy.'"
Ullger added, "You should have told him to write it down."