He's as good as the way people pronounce his last name.
That's the gauge on Francisco Liriano. It's not the juice on his fastball, the tilt on his slider, anything analytically tangible. It's how people talk about him.
Two years ago, when Liriano was a rookie for the Minnesota Twins blowing through bats like a miter saw, he inspired a gamut of inflections. His opponents referred to him with tones of resignation, the last two syllables trailing off like they were trying to let go of his mere existence. His teammates sounded like they woke up Christmas morning and got a big package of Liriano. Executives muttered his name like he was some punk kid, frustrated at the Twins' thievery of him in a trade from the San Francisco Giants.
And then there were the scouts. They conveyed the most awe. Scouts are paid to evaluate talent, and the way Francisco Liriano threw in 2006 – the manner in which he so overwhelmed major-league hitters – left them speaking in permanent italics.
Today, however, Francisco Liriano is … "Liriano," said one National League scout who saw him pitch last week. "He's not Liriano."
Which is plenty good. He's nearly two years removed from the Tommy John surgery that repaired a torn ligament in his left elbow. He started the year in the big leagues, got shelled, returned to Triple-A, struggled, regained his verve and two weeks ago was summoned back to Minneapolis for the stretch run, where he'll be an integral part of the Twins' duel with Chicago for the AL Central title.
Start No. 3 since his return comes tonight against hapless Seattle, following a pair of successes against similarly flaccid Cleveland and Kansas City offenses. The anticipation of his return had bubbled for three months and took on its own life when Liriano's agent, Greg Genske, asked the players' union to investigate why the Twins hadn't recalled him. At issue was Liriano's service time, even though had he been summoned at the time of the complaint it would not have made him arbitration-eligible next season.
In hindsight, Liriano admits, "I knew I wasn't ready," and said he understands Minnesota left him in the minors to keep his arm fresh potentially for the postseason: "They were winning a lot of games without me and they didn't have a spot open."
Still, because of who he was – what he was – just the thought of Liriano generated interest that continues to accompany each appearance, everyone wondering whether he can start making people jump octaves again.
"I'm almost there," Liriano said. "I was 100 percent, and I got called up, and my speed went away again. I don't know the deal. I was hitting 97. I'm not sure what happened."
Radar-gun voodoo might have helped Liriano's fastball touch 97 mph. Reality is, he's not throwing that hard, not even close. According to Pitch F/X data, Liriano's fastball is sitting at 92 mph and has topped out this year at 94. Even more telling, his slider – in his rookie season, the best since Randy Johnson's heyday, the scout said – rests at 81 mph and tops out at 84 mph after regularly tickling 90 before surgery.
Liriano tries not to concern himself too much with velocity, not after he figured his career done. Following the surgery, his arm was so painful for two months he said he contemplated life without baseball. Only after three weeks off in the Dominican Republic did the arm start to regain its life.
At the Twins' spring-training complex in Ft. Myers, Fla., Liriano spent two hours a day working out and the rest trying to figure out how to stave off boredom. He watched telenovelas, the Spanish-language soap operas, and slept a lot. He tried to convince himself things would be OK.
Forgetting the past did not come easily. Liriano had been so good – a 12-3 record with a 2.16 earned-run average, 144 strikeouts and 32 walks in 121 innings and a 2.10-to-1 groundball to flyball ratio: the perfect pitcher, really – that the thought of life as a different pitcher took months to accept.
"I want to throw slider, slider, slider, slider," Liriano said. "You just can't help it sometimes. You want to go slider because you know guys can't hit it."
No longer is that an option. The slider, Liriano believes, caused his elbow to break down. So he goes to it sparingly, relying more on a changeup that was previously strawberry to his fastball and slider's vanilla and chocolate.
And eventually, Liriano figures, he'll be all the way back. Some pitchers return from Tommy John with more velocity than before, in which case they might as well mint a few Cy Young plaques with his name.
For now, throwing without pain suffices. Liriano's elbow doesn't bark during his bullpen sessions, tighten up during games or give him trouble afterward, and, he said, "I'm not afraid it will."
Though he was quick to add: "But I don't want to risk it."
Until then, he holds onto what he was. And as dangerous as that can be – a past perhaps unrepeatable – Liriano sees it as not just his goal but his right.
"He's working on it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "Let's put it that way. His velocity isn't the same, and his breaking ball doesn't have as much velocity on it. But you know what? His not-quite-back-to-where-he-was-a-couple-years-ago (form) is better than a lot of guys. He's a force."
Just not the one with all kinds of last names.