Return of the Franchise
A closer look at Francisco Lirianoâ€™s first start back.
The Build-Up: Francisco Liriano took the mound for the Minnesota Twins last night for the first time since his early exit on Sept. 13, 2006. On that day, in a game against Oakland, Liriano left in the third inning with pain in his throwing (left) elbow. It was his first appearance since being sidelined on August 7 with a sore arm. The ultimate diagnosis was a damaged ulnar collateral ligament, and â€œThe Franchise,â€ as Johan Santana had dubbed the southpaw, underwent Tommy John surgery on November 11.
He had been a strong contender for the A.L. Rookie of the Year before being injured, compiling a 12-3 record with 144 strikeouts and only 32 walks in 121 innings pitched. He was twice voted the A.L. Rookie of the Month, and was a late choice for the A.L. All-Star team. Lirianoâ€™s success in the big leagues was no fluke, eitherâ€”in 2005, between AA New Britain and AAA Rochester, heâ€™d struck out 204 batters in 167.2 innings, with an ERA of 2.63 and a WHIP of 1.05. He was named International League Rookie of the Year that season.
Although he did not pitch in 2007, Lirianoâ€™s recovery from the operation was promising, and he was on a regular pitching schedule by the end of that year. It was suspected that his slider had put the most stress on his arm; as a result, manager Ron Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson limited the number of sliders he threw during his rehab and spring training. Liriano made five starts in spring training, totaling 15.2 innings. He allowed 7 runs on 14 hits, striking out 15 and walking 9.
The Twins chose to leave him off the opening day roster, instead sending him to Class A Fort Myers for another start. Liriano pitched the season opener for the Miracle, allowing 4 runs on 6 hits, striking out 8 and walking 2. After the game, Gardenhire said, â€œwe want to see his pitch count get up, want to see if heâ€™s OK health-wise.â€ To that end, he was given another start, this one for the Rochester Red Wings against the Norfolk Tides. On a chilly night in Virginia, Liriano fared worse, lasting just 4 innings and giving up 3 runs while striking only 3 men out. After this performance, Red Wings manager Stan Cliburn commented, â€œI would say [he could use] maybe one more start here to get a little bit more command, maybe build a little bit more strength.â€
It appeared as though Twins management was inclined to agree, and have him pitch again in Rochester on Sunday, April 13. As it turned out, however, Kevin Slowey, who was scheduled to pitch for Minnesota that day, was unable to recover in time from a strained bicep, and Liriano was recalled to the big leagues to take his spot in the rotation. The Twins were looking to complete a road sweep against Brian Bannister and the Kansas City Royals.
Before the game, Gardenhire acknowledged his uncertainty about Lirianoâ€™s progress, saying, â€œI donâ€™t know how heâ€™s going to doâ€¦. He had No. 1 dominating stuff before he got hurt. Now we’ll have to see if he’s got No. 1 dominating stuff coming back and whether he can throw it over.â€ For his part, Liriano expressed optimism, answering questions about his arm strength by saying, â€œIâ€™m just letting it [the slider] go right now. I donâ€™t feel anything in my mind.â€
The Game: Lirianoâ€™s first batter was Joey Gathright, who has been starting in center field while David DeJesus is out. He saw three fastballs, hitting the third on the ground to the left side. Adam Everett made the stop, but was unable to throw out the speedy Gathright. Esteban German batted next, and after Liriano missed with a first-pitch fastball, German successfully sacrificed Gathright to second with a bunt. Liriano now faced Mark Teahen with one out and a man at second. After falling behind 2-0, he battled back to a full count, throwing nothing but fastballs. On his sixth pitch, he struck Teahen out looking with a hard slider, his first breaking ball of the game and one of his best offerings of the evening. Billy Butler was next, and he hit a first-pitch fastball into center field, scoring Gathright. The fifth batter of the inning, Jose Guillen, fouled off a fastball before swinging and missing at two changeups, striking out to end the inning. In all, Liriano threw 14 pitches, 5 balls and 9 strikes. Of the 5 balls, however, 3 were on the first pitch of an at-bat. Furthermore, of the 14 pitches, 11 were fastballs, including both base hits. They ranged mostly from 88-90 MPH, although one reached 93. Both strikeouts were recorded with breaking balls.
In the second inning, Liriano started by issuing Alex Gordon a walk on 5 fastballs. Left-handed Miguel Olivo batted next, and after missing a bunt attempt, he lined a fastball into right field, scoring Gordon for the first run of the game. The next two batters, John Buck and Tony Pena, Jr., both saw two pitches, and both flied out to right field. The last batter was Gathright, who grounded a fastball to shortstop and was thrown out to end the inning. In the second, Liriano was helped by over-anxious Kansas City batters: four of the five men at the plate saw only two pitches each. He again struggled to get ahead in the count, throwing three first pitch balls, and again, the hit against him was off his fastball. The second inning did, however, feature more breaking balls, a trend that would become more apparent in the third.
After two, Liriano had thrown 27 pitches to ten batters. This inning, the Royals would make him work a bit harder. German saw five pitches, including three changeups, before grounding a fastball to Everett at second. Teahen, who had struck out in the first on a slider, swung at a fastball on the second pitch, but grounded it to Morneau at first. Butler next drew a walk, the second of the game, as Liriano missed with four breaking balls, including his first curveball of the game. Guillen ended the inning with a groundout on a 1-2 count. Liriano had to throw 17 pitches this inning, but he got ahead in the count two times out of four. He also showed an increased willingness to go to his breaking ballsâ€”11 out of 17, compared to 3 out of 14 in the first. Of the 10 balls put in play through three innings, 7 had been fastballs. The Royals would build on this in the next inning.
It was in the 4th that the Royals had real success against Liriano. As we will see, this was accomplished largely through waiting on his fastball, which, again, was around 89 MPH the entire game. Gordon led off the 4th and, after watching two changeups, hit a fastball into right field for a double. Miguel Olivo followed and struck out on a fastball, the seventh pitch of the at-bat. Buck followed and, after getting ahead 1-0, worked a 6-pitch walk. Gordon also stole third during this at-bat, putting runners on the corners with one out for Pena, Jr., and bringing Rick Anderson out to talk with his pitcher. Pena saw three fastballs, and hit the third one to left field, deep enough to score Gordon on a sacrifice. Gathright followed with a first-pitch single, a fastball, and German, after watching four breaking balls, hit a fastball into left to score Buck. Teahen then made the final out, lining a slider to third baseman Mike Lamb.
The 4th was definitely Lirianoâ€™s toughest inning. He threw 27 pitches, 17 for strikes, and allowed three hits and a walk. Interestingly, all 3 hits, as well as Penaâ€™s sacrifice, and Olivoâ€™s strikeout, came on fastballs. It is clear that the Kansas City batters had decided to wait on the fastball. This strategy proved very effective, as Liriano often missed the zone with breaking balls, creating situations where he was forced to throw the heater. 13 of the 27 pitches were fastballs, of which 4 were put in play.
The southpaw entered the 5th having thrown 73 pitches. His limit was near 90, so the Twins were hoping he could make it through one more inning. Butler walked again, on five pitches, to start the frame. Jose Guillen followed and struck out on a slider, after getting down 0-2. Gordon then popped a first-pitch fastball to the third base side, where it was caught by Lamb for the second out. Liriano was close to getting out of the fifth. With Olivo up, he threw four straight changeups, missing with three of them. The 3-1 pitch was a fastball out of the zone, and the two-out walk brought Gardenhire out of the dugout, calling for a reliever.
Lirianoâ€™s final line: 4.2 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 5 BB, 4 K. Three of the four strikeouts were on sliders. He threw 90 pitches, 51 of them strikes, to 25 batters. He took the loss in his comeback, as Brian Bannister tossed a complete game three-hitter for the Royals. Bannister said after the game that heâ€™d made a point of working quickly in order to tire Liriano in his first start back. Indeed, catcher Mike Redmond noted afterwards that â€œtoward the end, you could tell he was getting tired.â€ Also playing a role was the temperature, which dipped below freezing with the wind-chill. Liriano said that â€œit was too cold today. I couldnâ€™t feel my hands throwing the ball.â€
The Aftermath: The reaction to Lirianoâ€™s performance from the Twins clubhouse was largely positive. Said Gardenhire, â€œHe did fine. It wasn’t a beautiful performance by any means, but he’s healthy. The ball was coming out of his hand, and hopefully it will just get better and better from here.â€ Pitching coach Rick Anderson noticed that â€œyou could see how frustrated he got out on the mound. He wasn’t real repeatable in his deliveryâ€¦. The more he’s out there, the more he’s going to make adjustments and handle the situations better.” Liriano himself admitted that he had trouble locating his fastball, and said he was nervous for the first few innings. Meanwhile, the Royals were cautious in their critique: â€œI know his velocityâ€™s down a lot,â€ said Teahen. â€œI saw his slider pretty good todayâ€¦ [he] can still be a really productive pitcher, but definitely not the flash that was there in â€™06.â€ Trey Hillman, the Royalsâ€™ manager, on the other hand, said that although â€œhe was spotty with his controlâ€¦ you can still see the electric stuff.â€
Now that he is in the big leagues once again, the Twins have no plans to send Liriano back down for more conditioning in the minors. His next start will come on Friday, April 18 in the Metrodome, against Cleveland and Cliff Lee. As Gardenhire pointed out, â€œwarm weather is better for most pitchers,â€ so that may bode well for the team.
At the very least, the Twins can be grateful that Liriano threw pain-free, if not flawlessly, for 90 pitches. Although he was rarely reminiscent of his 2006 season, he did take an important step in his recovery. Minnesota can only hope that he will continue to progress with his location and endurance. As those things come and his velocity returns, he still does have the potential to pick up where he left off 19 months ago.
Sources: www.baseball-reference.com; www.mlb.com and MLB Gameday; the Minneapolis Star-Tribune; the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle; Yahoo! Sports.