Francisco Liriano's first major league start in 19 months was so ugly last Sunday that discerning Twins fans turned off the television and went for a walk in the sleet.
The only thing worse than the quality of Liriano's pitches was his body language. The folks in line at the City of Minneapolis impound lot after a snowstorm seem happier to be there than Liriano was on the mound in Kansas City.
Liriano allowed four runs and 11 baserunners (six hits, five walks) in 42/3 innings. The numbers were better than he pitched.
The Twins' response was predictable: First big-league start after surgery; very cold day, and the next start in the Metrodome would provide a better indication of his readiness to be pitching here again.
That start came Friday against Cleveland. Liriano was welcomed back to the Dome with substantial applause when he was introduced as the starting pitcher.
The lefthander then opened his second start with something he didn't have in KC: a 1-2-3 inning.
Liriano went to 2-2 on leadoff hitter Grady Sizemore, then threw a slider that wasn't as hard as hitters faced in '06, but it had a sharp break. Sizemore was frozen for strike three.
"Yes, that was a good pitch," Liriano said later. "My breaking pitch was good. It was my fastball. I need command with my fastball."
The slider to Sizemore was 81 miles per hour on the Dome's register. Liriano had other sliders that hit 85. What gives?
"I throw a short one and big one," he said. "I throw the short one harder."
Sizemore's look at strike three was followed by Jamey Carroll's tapper and Victor Martinez being late on an 89-mph fastball for strike three.
The Twins talked incessantly in Florida about the need for Liriano to find his slider. What the lefthander needed more was to throw his fastball over the plate.
Finally, that was the party line -- from Liriano, from manager Ron Gardenhire, from pitching coach Rick Anderson -- after Friday night's 4-0 loss to Cleveland's Cliff Lee.
"Frankie? He was better than last time," Gardenhire said. "He's still commanding his fastball."
When Liriano was throwing bullets two years ago, he walked 32 in 121 innings -- an average of 2.4 per nine. He has walked 10 in 9 2/3 innings in his two 2008 starts.
Friday's promising first inning was followed by a five-pitch walk to Ryan Garko to open the second. Jhonny Peralta followed with a first-pitch single. There was another walk and a two-run single by Casey Blake before Liriano was able to get through the inning.
He also had walks in the third and fourth, before pitching around them. A couple of singles and Liriano's fifth walk led to a third run in the fifth. That was it -- three runs and nine baserunners (four hits, five walks) in five innings.
Liriano looked as if he wanted to compete on this night, as opposed to the agony that he was displaying Sunday. There was progress with the slider, but what didn't change was his control.
He threw 90 pitches and only 51 for strikes in KC. He threw 88 pitches and only 47 for strikes in the Dome.
Liriano's fastball is 6 mph below the 94-95 at which he rode along during those fantastic 3 1/2 months of '06. Even now, throwing 88-89, there is enough hop on his fastball that Liriano doesn't have to be Brad Radke-like and paint the corners to get outs.
"There's still enough jump on his fastball -- enough life at the end -- that he doesn't have to pitch to spots," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "He just has to pitch to an area."
Catcher Joe Mauer was set up in the middle of the plate to start the game. That way, if Liriano threw at the glove, his fastball could dart in or out and still be a strike.
"It was a step forward," Gardenhire said. "It's just about the fastball now ... throwing it in the zone."
Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. • firstname.lastname@example.org