Francisco Liriano was only a few outs away from his first career complete game, shutout, and a masterful performance that won't be soon forgotten before subbed-in first baseman Terry Tiffee managed to flat-out drop a routine throw from Jason Bartlett.
If not, Liriano may have had a seven K, two hit, no walk shutout. That would have easily ranked amongst the best performances so far in the bigs this year, up there one-hitters from John Lackey and Chris Young's earlier this year. The runner who reached on Tiffee's error ended up scoring, erasing Liriano's shutout (though it was unearned) and causing him to come out of the game so Kyle Lohse could get the last out. Regardless, Liriano was magnficient.
Fortunately, I was able to see Liriano's greatness live in person. Liriano, along with Johan Santana, Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, has given me plenty of reason to go out to Twins games this year, even if I know their hopes of going to the postseason are slim. In the ninth inning, Liriano hit 96 on the Metrodome radar gun with a pitch to Rocco Baldelli before he surrendered the shutout-breaking hit.
The greatest aspect of his performance is that he didn't even really rely on his fastball until the later innings. His assortment of sliders and change-ups along with some fastballs was plenty to hold the Tampa Bay lineup to a few pitiful singles. He proved that he can not only adjust after last week's rough outing against Cleveland, but also that he clearly has three very good pitches in his arsenal, much the same way his teammate Santana does.
It was as if Liriano, if he wanted to, could impersonate Jamie Moyer for half the night and still be nearly impossible to hit. The only negative here is that his luck may have evened up, as his groundball-to-flyball ratio was still considerably high, especially for Liriano (who has been a groundball pitcher all year), at 13-6. Its great that he can be effective that way, but he has to use that fastball if he wants to get the best lineups out.
Other than Liriano's great game, I feel the need to comment on one other great young Twins player: Mr. Morneau. Pulling him from the game in favor of Terry Tiffee turned out to hurt Liriano, but ignoring that, Morneau did well while in the game. He went 1-for-3, but his one hit was big: a towering fourth inning blast off of young and spectacular Tampa Bay lefty Scott Kazmir that brought his season total to 25.
Justin's home run was great not just because it's his 9th dinger against a lefty this year (more than doubling his total of four from last year), but because its only the second home run and fifth extra-base hit Kazmir has allowed to a lefty all year. That's further proof of just how much Justin has improved in hitting against lefties from last year (.201, 4 HR) to this year (.281, 9 HR) and that not all his homers against lefties are coming against guys like Bruce Chen (Chen has allowed 22 HRs).
What is become more apparent as well is that Morneau needs to be moved back into the cleanup spot. Aaron Gleeman mentioned this in his post yesterday, pointing out how many intentional walks Joe Mauer has gotten hitting in front of Michael Cuddyer. This is bad news because Cuddyer has continued to strike out in bunches (three last night, 68 in 283 at-bats in total compared to 37 walks), hits very poorly against right-handers (.227/.335/.415), and has not been hitting homers and driving in runs like he was early in the season.
Gardy seems to think it's risky to have the two left-handers back-to-back, as conventional baseball wisdom would have it, but that's just ridiculous at this point. Morneau is the big hitter and slugger in the lineup and he needs to hit fourth. Period. Cuddyer can be a great number five hitter if he keeps taking some walks and hitting well with men on, but Morneau can be a big improvement at the four-spot, because no one will want to pitch around Mauer with Morneau's big bat behind him, barring a huge slump.
In my mind, the lineup, at least until Hunter returns, should go something like this:
1. Castillo 2B
2. Punto 3B
3. Mauer C
4. Morneau 1B
5. Cuddyer RF
6. Kubel DH
7. White LF
8. Rabe/Tyner CF
9. Bartlett SS
Now, of course, Gardy probably won't think of this until Cuddyer slumps for a long time and hurts his confidence. It shouldn't come down to that. Cuddyer has shown himself this year to have the potential to be a solid presence in the lineup with the power we've always heard of, but, even though he was a solution the cleanup problem for a while, Morneau looks ready.
Morneau was always the big bat of the future, "Lil' Harmon," as SBG calls him. Big sluggers, from Albert Pujols to Vladimir Guerrero to Jim Thome to Travis Hafner to Lance Berkman, bat in one of two spots: in the third spot or in the cleanup spot. Mauer is going to be on base and I think it's time Morneau starts driving him in. After all, isn't that what we've been waiting for?