CHICAGO - For four innings, Francisco Liriano auditioned for the job of ace.
In the fifth and sixth innings, he raised a question: Can your ace, when he's standing on the mound in a big game, be someone who looks like he needs a hug?
For the first four innings of the Twins' cork-loosening 9-3 victory over the White Sox, Liriano woke the echoes of his 2006 season, when he became known as "Franchise.''
In the fifth and sixth, he suffered brainlock after fielding a grounder and received so many visitors that the pitcher's mound look like an "El'' stop.
There were more people surrounding Liriano on the mound than there were in the stands by the end of the game. You expected the fire marshal to issue a warning.
"There was a lot of talking going on out there,'' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I think the White Sox fans really enjoyed us going out there. Now they know how we feel when we play the Yankees and [Jorge] Posada is running out there. We were wondering what was going on ourselves.''
Liriano, like the Twins, has the weight of accomplishment on his side. He's 8-0 since the All-Star break for the team that has built the best record in baseball (40-16) since then. He's become the most likely candidate to start Game 1 of the playoffs, assuming the Twins don't choke like the Tigers.
Liriano has also offered evidence that such an assignment might make his frontal lobes wobble like Jell-O.
Liriano displayed the dynamic pitches that made him the most unhittable pitcher in the game for a few months in '06. "I had eight days of rest,'' Liriano said. "I felt really good.''
According to radar-gun readings at U.S. Cellular Field and on MLB.com, his fastball touched 97 miles per hour, and his slider hit 90.
His arm must be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery, but his composure doesn't always keep up with his velocity.
With runners on first and third in the fifth, Juan Pierre hit a sharp grounder right to Liriano. He panicked.
Liriano checked the runner at third, then threw out Pierre at first. Instead of an inning-ending double play, he had two runners in scoring position, with Alexei Ramirez coming to the plate.
"I made sure I sent Andy out to talk to him,'' Gardenhire said, referring to pitching coach Rick Anderson.
Ramirez was 9-for-19 against Liriano. Ramirez worked the count full. With first base open. Liriano could have thrown a slider in the dirt. Instead, Liriano threw a fastball down the middle. Ramirez lined it to center for two runs.
When Liriano struggles, his body language suggests he needs time in a dark room listening to Yanni. In the fifth and sixth, Joe Mauer and Anderson went to the mound to compete with the other voices in Liriano's head.
"He had good stuff tonight,'' Anderson said. "I thought he got a little excited at times, got caught up in the emotions. On that one comebacker, he was so mad at himself for not turning two, we went out and tried to calm him down, but then he got out of whack mentally. His stuff was outstanding.''
We're accustomed to aces who act like Jack Morris, who throw and emit heat. Liriano sometimes becomes the personification of one of Gardenhire's made-up words: flustrated.
So if you're looking for an ace, do you judge Liriano by the quality of his pitches or the quantity of his butterflies?
Today's answer: Give Liriano the ball in Game 1 and prepare for more group therapy on the mound.
Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon, and weekdays at 2:40 p.m., on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib.