FORT MYERS, Fla. (AP) — Francisco Liriano and the Minnesota Twins have spent the last four years in a delicate tug of war.
Liriano has been trying to get back to the overpowering presence he was before returning from Tommy John surgery in 2008. The Twins have been trying to help their prized left-hander become a more complete pitcher.
After seeing mixed results and inconsistency the past few seasons, manager Ron Gardenhire appears ready to let go of the reins and see what happens.
“Sometimes you have to just step back and say, ‘Go get em,’” Gardenhire said earlier this spring. “That’s what I plan on doing. I’m not going to lose anymore hair fighting it. My hair’s gone.”
The Twins are still concentrating on Liriano’s mechanics, trying to get him to avoid a violent corkscrew delivery that may have led to some of his arm troubles while also urging him to be as efficient as possible so he can pitch deeper into games.
But Liriano has also noticed more encouragement from the coaching staff to “let it fly,” and it appears to be helping so far this spring.
The key to the Twins rotation is off to an impressive start with 18 strikeouts in 13 innings pitched this spring. He has a 2.77 ERA and threw five no-hit innings in his last start against the Pirates.
“He can walk two guys in an inning and then blow the side away,” Gardenhire said. “You don’t have too many pitchers in the game that can do that, walk a couple guys and then strike the next three guys out and make them look silly. He has the ability to do those things.”
All four of his earned runs came in one rough inning against the Toronto Blue Jays last week.
“When I try to change the way I pitch, I don’t focus on the hitters,” Liriano said. “I just focus on what I have to do mechanics-wise and everything I have to do.”
Pitching coach Rick Anderson has been working with Liriano to make sure he “stays tall” in his delivery, creating a more downward throwing motion that can help him better locate his fastball.
It’s taken time for Liriano to accept the suggestions. At times he has felt like the Twins — an organization that often grooms pitch-to-contact style throwers who strikeout a few and walk even fewer — were asking him to be someone he wasn’t and couldn’t be.
“He made a comment last year, ‘I’m trying to pitch their way and I can’t; I have to do it my way,’” Anderson said. “It’s not my way. I said, ‘Frankie, you’re violent, it’s the way you are. I don’t care. You’re a strikeout pitcher. I don’t care. My way is just getting you under control where you’re throwing it downhill.’”
Both parties have had to do some adjusting to try to find the right balance.
“Unlike a lot of our pitchers on our staff, Frankie is a guy that has lived by strikeouts,” Gardenhire said. “He likes strikeouts and he goes for strikeouts. That’s going to be a tendency to have more high pitch counts and as you see with his violent delivery that he ends up spinning off balls and everything. Strikeout people do that. Sometimes we’re just going to have to live with it.”
It may be the team’s best chance to get a true ace on a staff filled with veterans, grinders, and arms that rely on control and smarts more than electric stuff.
When Liriano burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2006, it seemed like electricity pulsed through his veins. He went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 121 innings, with a knee-buckling slider that few could touch.
Then he had ligament-replacement surgery, and it’s been four years of searching and chasing the player he once was. He threw a no-hitter against the White Sox last year, but still went just 9-10 with a 5.09 ERA in another uneven season.
The 28-year-old Liriano will be a free agent after this season, so there is a lot riding on his performance in 2012.
The Twins lost 99 games last season, so they need Liriano to emerge as a top-of-the-rotation starter as badly as he does. Everyone knows he has the talent. Now it’s just about harnessing that talent without stifling the power.
“We’re not looking for nine innings every outing,” general manager Terry Ryan said. “We’d take it, you know that. But most of the best pitchers, and I’m talking about the top 15 or 20 in the game, they give you seven-some innings per start. So we’re not talking about anything that’s not unattainable.”
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