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The long road

Posted by: Nick Nelson Updated: June 12, 2011 - 10:35 PM

"Stuff" is one of my favorite baseball terms. On the surface it seems so rudimentary, yet it's used by scribes, players, coaches, scouts and fans alike. There really is no synonym. While the word in its general usage is as ambiguous as they come, its usage in baseball is acutely specific. You know what it is when you see it. Stuff is what makes the great pitchers great.

Francisco Liriano is one of those hurlers who has always been gifted with incredible stuff. When he first unleashed it on the major leagues back in 2006, hitters were blown away. Despite being just 22, Liriano struck out 144 batters while allowing only 89 hits in 121 innings. It was one of the most dominating rookie performances in memory.

The electricity of Liriano's arm has never been in question, only his ability to keep it running and control its current.

He short-circuited late in that sensational 2006 campaign, with a torn elbow ligament that required Tommy John surgery. We all know how many tribulations have been encountered on the long road back, but through it all Liriano's stuff endured; he continued to throw the ball past hitters even at times when his body ached and his control disappeared (most notably in a 2009 campaign where he went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA but still managed 122 whiffs in 136 innings).

Last season, things finally came together for Liriano, for the first time since his injury. He displayed masterful command of the strike zone, averaging only 2.7 walks per nine innings, and his stuff was just about as good as ever. At age 27, he seemed prepared to resume the path he'd embarked upon when he first rose to the majors back in 2006, which was why I strongly advocated for a contract extension during the offseason.

Of course, I didn't anticipate that Liriano would forget how to throw strikes over the offseason. From the moment he showed up to camp this year, he was a mess, racking up huge pitch counts while struggling to find the zone with even half his offerings. Over his first seven starts this year (including the no-hitter), Liriano walked 27 batters in 35 2/3 innings while throwing just 55 percent of his pitches for strikes.

Ever since the no-hitter, though, Liriano has been pitching with increased confidence, and yesterday at Target Field he appeared to turn a corner. Finally, he looked every bit as dominant as he did when at his best last year, or even in 2006. Facing off against a dangerous Texas lineup, the southpaw attacked the zone with authority, making almost every hitter he faced look hopelessly overmatched.

There was no luck involved with Liriano's no-hit bid, which was broken up by an Adrian Beltre single in the eighth. All afternoon, the Rangers flailed hopelessly at Liriano's darting fastballs and devastating sliders. Through the first seven innings, seemingly every Texas at-bat ended with a strikeout or a weakly tapped grounder.

In two starts since returning from the disabled list, the left-hander has now allowed two runs (one earned), five hits and three walks in 13 innings while striking out 16. It took a while, but finally he seems to be getting back on track.

The same can be said for the Twins, who have now won nine of their last 11, trimming their deficit in the AL Central to single digits for the first time since early May.

With a bevy of key players set to come off the disabled list this week, interleague play (which they've traditionally dominated) approaching, and plenty of home games on the docket, the Twins have to be feeling a whole lot better about their chances than they they did just a couple short weeks ago.

With that said, they've still got a long way to go. In spite of their impressive hot streak, they still have the fewest wins of any AL team, and must pass four clubs to get to the top of the division. Even with the rotation showing significant improvement and the lineup incrementally returning to full strength, that will be a tall task for a team with ingrained flaws.

One thing is for sure, though: their odds will be much, much better if Liriano can keep throwing the ball like he did at Target Field yesterday. Suddenly, this team has an ace again.

Good stuff.

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