When Francisco Liriano joined the Twins earlier this season and went 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA and 7-to-13 strikeout to walk ratio over three starts, it seemed evident that he had a long ways to go before he'd be an effective major-league pitcher again. I felt that we wouldn't be seeing him in a Twins uniform until at least after the All-Star break, if not 2009.
Much to my surprise and delight, Liriano made very quick strides upon his return to Class-AAA Rochester. After an ugly first start back with the Red Wings (4.1 IP, 4 ER, 5 BB), Liriano started to make demonstrable adjustments. In nine starts since then, he has pitched 6+ innings eight times, allowed three or fewer runs eight times and issued two or fewer walks seven times. He's throwing more strikes and pitching deep into ballgames. Over his past four starts, he has gone 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 26-to-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 25 2/3 innings. Considering how far away he looked back in April, there's no way I could have anticipated that Liriano would be pitching so well so soon, even if it is just at the Triple-A level. Reports indicate that he has added a few ticks to his velocity and that he's harnessed his fastball, which he struggled mightily to command during his stint with the Twins.
Despite his success, the Twins would probably like to be patient with Liriano. However, just as was the case back in April, circumstances may force the team to move ahead of its desired schedule with the left-hander. Livan Hernandez's performance has spiraled as of late, and with the number of hits and runs he is giving up each time out, it doesn't seem like Ron Gardenhire will be able to continue trotting him out there every fifth day without the players and fans revolting. Even if Gardy elects to keep sticking with Hernandez, it was recently revealed that Nick Blackburn is going to miss his next scheduled start due to muscle soreness in his throwing elbow. The Twins have stated that Blackburn is still on pace to start on Saturday, but these things tend to linger and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Blackburn end up on the disabled list. If that happens and the Twins need another pitcher, it's somewhat difficult to justify calling on anyone other than Liriano.
While Liriano is basically assured to have more success in his next shot with the Twins than he did last time, it's still probably best to keep expectations low. His devastating slider was the main ingredient for his success back in 2006, and by all accounts that pitch is still nowhere near where it was prior to surgery. In all likelihood, it will probably never get back to that point. But Liriano is a good, smart pitcher who can have success if he locates and mixes his pitches, even if those pitches aren't as nasty as they once were. The fact that he's started missing bats down in Rochester is certainly an encouraging sign.
It seems inevitable that Liriano will be getting another shot in a Twins uniform. How soon? At this point, that may be dictated by factors other than his arm.