Four years later, Liriano is lights-out again

The fourth pitch Francisco Liriano(notes) threw while losing his playoff virginity a year ago was a fat fastball that bisected home plate, the sort that flies 425 feet in the other direction and turns Yankee Stadium into a den of apoplexy. As inauspicious postseason debuts went, giving up a Hideki Matsui(notes) moonshot to dead center field was quite the feat. Liriano was a middle reliever, and he looked the part.

One week from today, he gets to embrace a far different role. Ace, stopper, No. 1, linchpin – any and all apply, and each illustrates what Liriano means to the 2010 Minnesota Twins. He is their fulcrum. Should Liriano crumble under the weight of expectations or the lineups of his foes – the American League wild-card winner, either the New York Yankees or Tampa Bay Rays – the Twins will cave, too. And should he succeed, visions of 1987 and 1991 again will dance throughout cerebra across Minnesota.

Ace pitcher Francisco Liriano gives the Twins hope as the playoffs near.
(US Presswire)

Liriano tries to shrug off such sentiment, of course, because his path back to this place is four years in the making, and along the way he has learned that those outside factors control nothing. He is who he is. He does what he does.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said, “who I’m facing.”

Except that it does. This isn’t middle relief. It is Game 1. Against CC Sabathia(notes), if it’s the Yankees. Against David Price(notes), if it’s the Rays.

“Fine,” he allowed. “It’s different. But you don’t want to think about it too much.”

Because thinking about it takes Liriano’s mindset away from the comeback season in which his peripheral statistics match up with anybody, including AL Cy Young candidate Felix Hernandez(notes) and the two pitchers directly behind him, Price and Sabathia. Liriano is striking out 9.5 batters per nine innings, walking 2.8 and allowing so few home runs that even he admits, “I’ve been really lucky.”

Be it stuff, luck or some other mystical component, Liriano has been reminiscent of his 2006 self, the Stephen Strasburg(notes) before Stephen Strasburg. Though Liriano didn’t arrive with Strasburg’s hype, he was even more dominant from the start. With a 94-mph fastball and 87-mph slider delivered from a left-handed motion that hid the ball well, Liriano turned hitters into blobs of inconsequence. From mid-May, when he entered the Twins’ rotation, to the end of July, Liriano went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and limited batters to 51 hits in 92 2/3 innings.

Then he blew out his elbow.

“I won’t ever be that again,” Liriano said. “I was a new guy. Hitters didn’t know me. I wasn’t pitching. I was just throwing. I had no game plan. … And then I got hurt.”

Liriano missed the 2007 season. Twelve months after his Tommy John surgery, he was throwing 85 mph. Liriano asked his best friend, then-Giants prospect Merkin Valdez(notes), what he was throwing a year after Tommy John. Around 97, Valdez answered.

“Mine was hurting,” Liriano said. “I couldn’t throw hard. And that made me feel even worse. I didn’t know if it was ever going to get better. I know that some guys heal faster than others. I didn’t want to be the guy who healed slow.”

He was. Liriano’s return in 2008 wasn’t great. He spent half the season in Triple-A, his velocity still not back, and it didn’t return in 2009, either. His fastball reached 93 mph on good days, and it was one of the most hittable pitches in the major leagues last season. While Liriano’s slider bit like a famished mosquito, without a hard complement it turned into a pitch he needed to throw for strikes every time, something he couldn’t do.

After the Yankees dispatched the Twins in the AL Division Series, Liriano returned home to San Cristobal, Dominican Republic. He didn’t touch a baseball for 20 days. When he started long-tossing to prepare for the winter ball season, he said, his arm felt invigorated. Scouts clocked his fastball at 96 mph, sometimes 97. Today, it sits at 94 mph, and it’s fair to say that nearly four years after surgery, he is back – or at least as close as he’ll be.

“You can’t get much better than that 2006 campaign,” Twins catcher Joe Mauer(notes) said, “but he’s throwing the ball so well now. It’s crazy. The way his ball moves – there’s a reason that guys don’t hit many [home runs] off him. It’s all over the place.”

Indeed, Mauer knows his pitchers. Only 43.7 percent of Liriano’s pitches are in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs, the ninth-lowest rate among qualifying starters. Liriano succeeds nonetheless by starting off hitters at a disadvantage (61.8 percent first-pitch strikes) and getting them to swing at more than one-third of pitches outside the strike zone, fifth highest in the major leagues.

Nobody is better than Liriano at getting swinging strikes – hitters whiff on one of every eight pitches from him – and if there is any sign that he has reverted to his 2006 form, it’s his ground-ball ratio. Last year, he allowed more flyouts than groundouts. This year, he’s inducing nearly two ground balls per fly ball.

And so it’s no wonder Twins manager Ron Gardenhire is handing Liriano the ball in Game 1. Minnesota will be at Target Field, their gleaming new stadium, hosting one of the American League powerhouses, with their heir to Johan Santana(notes) on the mound, right where he wants to be.

“It’s amazing,” Liriano said. “I’m excited. I’m happy. They believe in me.”

They believe in their ace.

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Sep 29, 2010