MINNEAPOLIS – Francisco Liriano is going to pitch somewhere this weekend.
Liriano might end up in Scranton, Pa., rehabbing the elbow injury that has kept him out for the month in an International League playoff game Saturday for Rochester, the Minnesota Twins’ Triple-A affiliate.
(He’s got a plane ticket, for Friday morning, from Minneapolis to Scranton.)
“I don’t even know,” Liriano said. “That’s where I’m going, right?”
(Well, no, not necessarily. The Twins are balking at sending him there for his lone rehab start before his scheduled start Wednesday against the Oakland Athletics, because if Rochester wins Friday, there is no game Saturday, in which case Liriano then would fly from Scranton to Beloit, Wis. Or maybe he’d go to Davenport, Iowa, or perhaps Geneva, Ill., if Beloit, the Twins’ Low-A affiliate, starts its first game of the Midwest League semifinals on the road. But if Scranton wins and Beloit loses Friday, neither team plays Saturday, so he would just head back to Minnesota and throw a simulated game, in which case he would have made the whole trip for absolutely no reason.)
All of this is relevant because Francisco Liriano is not the type of player with whom a team should mess around, and he certainly is not the type of player on whom to thrust a maybe/we’ll-see/let’s-play-it-by-ear scenario.
And all of this is confusing, too, because baseball prides itself on a few simple rules. You show up on time. You respect the game. And you do not put a franchise pitcher on a commercial jet headed to Pennsylvania in the middle of a pennant race because he might throw 50 pitches to live minor-league batters.
There is no room for might this time of year, particularly for a decision upon which the Twins’ playoff hopes seem to rest. Currently, their rotation consists of Johan Santana, who should win the American League Cy Young award, three rookies named Matt, Scott and Boof, which sounds like a Saturday-morning cartoon – incidentally, the surnamed Garza, Baker and Bonser have pitched like kids, with a combined 5.82 earned-run average – and Carlos Silva, who removed himself from his start Wednesday after six shutout innings because his tummy hurt. Poor guy.
Somehow, the Twins are not just alive but kicking. They’re still on top of the AL wild-card standings after Detroit stunted them 7-2 on Thursday night to kick off the ultimate what-could-be or what-could’ve-been series of Minnesota’s season. To add Liriano, slinging the 98-mph fastball and 90-mph slider with which he has baffled hitters en route to a 12-3 record and 2.19 ERA, could be like taking a great steak and topping it with a rich béarnaise.
“I’m very excited,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said, and that was evident when he twice more repeated how excited he was. “Skeptical? Not at all. Our only goal was to make sure he’s healthy, and everything we’ve seen and everything we’ve been through says so.”
Liriano threw 50 pitches to five hitters Wednesday in a simulated game. Gardenhire stood behind the cage, watched and, as Liriano pounded the strike zone, resisted the urge to do cartwheels.
“Everything looked good,” said outfielder Josh Rabe, one of the hitters who faced Liriano. “Everything looked like it was before.
“Hey,” Rabe said, catching Liriano’s attention, “I’m just telling him how good you looked.”
Liriano smiled. When asked how Rabe’s swings looked, he shook his head disapprovingly.
“Actually,” Rabe said, “he didn’t look that good. I was lying. I don’t know what the problem with the rest of the American League is.”
Forget the American League. All of baseball spent months trying to figure out Liriano to no avail.
They knew about him from scouts’ glowing reports about how he could be even better than Santana and really learned about him when he tore through hitters for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. Liriano’s arrest for DUI and Baker’s boffo performance in spring training ensured a position in the bullpen instead of the rotation, a move that Liriano made moot after 12 appearances, nine of which were scoreless.
Once in the rotation, Liriano outdueled Roger Clemens in his comeback game, garnered Rookie of the Year support, started to get Cy Young buzz and went into the All-Star break 10-1 with a 1.83 ERA. He made the AL All-Star team as a replacement, forced to wake up at 3 a.m. the day of the game, drive 90 minutes to an airport in the Dominican, fly to Miami, truck to Fort Lauderdale and fly to Pittsburgh, arriving 12 hours after he had awaken.
Then came the injury, a mild chronic strain of the ulnar collateral ligament, which sounds bad and would have been awful if it were torn, because the UCL is the ligament repaired in what is commonly known as Tommy John surgery.
To kill time, Liriano has worked out, using five-pound weights to keep his arm from atrophying, and spent time with his older brother, Jorge, who moved to Minneapolis after the All-Star break and brought some of the Dominican with him.
“He cooks for me,” Liriano said. “I don’t know how to. I was just eating in restaurants near my condo. He knows how to do everything. Rice and beans. That’s what we eat in the Dominican.”
Food, of course, is more a salve than a solution for a season that has run the gamut, from the hype to the trouble with the law to the dominance to the epic trip to the injury.
In a year, Liriano has practically lived a career.
“If it’s going to be a real career, we’ve got to make the playoffs first,” Liriano said. “And then we’ll see.”
All it could take is Liriano’s return.
And that’s turning out to be the toughest part.