The loss of star rookie pitcher Francisco Liriano could prove to be a fatal blow to the Minnesota Twins’ season. They’ll start to find out pretty quickly as they open a road trip that could go a long way toward determining their postseason fate.
The Twins begin a season high-tying 10-game trip Thursday night with the opener of a four-game set against the Cleveland Indians.
Minnesota had won five in a row as it continued its dramatic surge toward a playoff spot, and had Liriano returning from the disabled list Wednesday to start against Oakland. The team’s visions of the 1-2 punch of Liriano and Cy Young Award candidate Johan Santana leading it into the playoffs, though, didn’t last long.
Making his first start since leaving a game Aug. 8 with a strained ligament in his arm, Liriano looked sharp through two innings, throwing 29 pitches—20 for strikes—and allowing one hit. He slumped off the mound in the third, though, and was forced to leave when he felt a pop in his arm after delivering a pitch to Bobby Kielty.
“Everything was the way it was supposed to go—there was no sign of anything,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “Then all of a sudden, the one pitch out there and he’s done.”
Liriano, 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA, had an MRI after the game, and thoughts turned to the possibility of ligament replacement surgery that could keep him off the mound for more than a year.
“Obviously he won’t be pitching again (this season),” Gardenhire said.
Minnesota lost 1-0 to the Athletics, and stayed 1 1/2 games behind first-place Detroit in the AL Central after the Tigers lost 11-3 to Texas. But the Twins’ wild-card lead was reduced to 1 1/2 games over Chicago, which defeated Los Angeles 9-0.
“It’s not devastating. It’s not earth-shattering,” Minnesota’s Michael Cuddyer said. “It’s very disappointing for (Liriano) on a personal level. But we’ve been here before.”
With Liriano out from Aug. 8-Sept. 12, Minnesota went 20-13 and gained nine games on Detroit in the standings while moving into the wild-card lead. The Twins’ pitching staff registered a 3.33 ERA, and relievers converted 10 of 13 save opportunities in that span.
With the rookie left-hander done, Minnesota will have to continue relying on the unheralded pitchers that have sparked its climb into playoff position. Rookie Boof Bonser (5-5, 4.50 ERA), who starts Thursday, has been stellar in his last two starts. In wins over Tampa Bay and Detroit, the right-hander has given up two runs and 10 hits in 13 1-3 innings.
“I think he sees what makes you successful in this league and that’s attacking and making your pitches,” Gardenhire said after Bonser allowed a run and five hits in seven innings of a 2-1 victory over Detroit on Saturday.
Bonser, who will be making his first career start against Cleveland, has won his last two road starts after going 0-2 with a 6.00 ERA in his first four.
The Twins badly need Bonser to continue his road success. Minnesota has baseball’s best record at home at 50-24, but is 35-36 away from the Metrodome. The 24-year-old right-hander could make three starts on this road trip.
Following the four-game set in Cleveland, the Twins travel to Boston for three games and close out the stretch at Baltimore.
Minnesota will face a struggling Cleveland club that’s dropped two straight and seven of its last 10. The Indians, though, will send Cliff Lee (12-10, 4.53) to the mound Thursday looking to win his third straight start.
Lee allowed a run and five hits over six innings in a 9-1 victory over the White Sox last Thursday.
“Obviously they’re playing to make the playoffs and we’re playing to get on a good streak for next year,” Lee said of Chicago.
Lee is 1-0 with a 5.17 ERA against the Twins this year, and has yet to face them at home. Since the start of the 2004 season, Lee is 3-0 with a 4.58 ERA against Minnesota at Jacobs Field.
The Indians were swept in a two-game home set by Kansas City, losing 6-2 on Wednesday. Grady Sizemore hit his 24th homer for Cleveland, which has taken four of six at home from Minnesota this season, including a three-game sweep from April 7-9.