La Velle E. Neal III suggested on his blog yesterday that Francisco Liriano might get the starting nod on Sunday in the Twins' series finale at Kaufmann Stadium. Liriano's addition to the rotation would bump Jeff Manship, who has failed to last even five innings in any of his past three starts, and whose 6.35 ERA and 1.72 WHIP have proven that he can't be trusted to make key starts during a pennant race.
According to Ron Gardenhire, Joe Mauer said after Liriano's relief outing on Tuesday night that "it was the best the ball has come out of his hand in a long time." That's great, but how many times this season have we heard quotes similar to this regarding Liriano? It seems like there were countless occasions on which Rick Anderson would marvel about how great Liriano's bullpen session between starts was only to have the left-hander hit the mound with a dud outing in his next turn. There's little doubt that Liriano still has the stuff to succeed as a starting pitcher in this league -- he's averaging over 91 mph on his fastball and his slider has been devastating -- but mentally he just hasn't been able to pull it together for any length of time.
Nevertheless, I remain bullish on Liriano and I'd love to see him get the start on Sunday. I wrote back in early August that the Twins would need an effective Liriano in order to reach the playoffs and especially to succeed there. They've managed to close the gap on Detroit since that time without meaningful contributions from Liriano, but I really think getting a couple strong starts from the southpaw here in the waning days of the season could make the difference. If Liriano were to pitch well enough in a couple starts down the stretch here to earn a spot in a potential postseason rotation, he's got the ability to shut down the type of imposing lineup the Twins would surely be facing the ALDS.
Of course, whether or not he can actually put that ability to use remains in question, because even though Mauer claimed Liriano was throwing the ball exceedingly well on Tuesday night, the pitcher's results still didn't live up to his purported performance. Liriano allowed two hits and two walks while striking out only one batter over 2 1/3 innings, and let a key game-tying run come across the plate on a two-out double by Paul Konerko.
The story remains the same as it has all season for Liriano. If he can get it together mentally and take command of his pitches, he can be this team's most dominant starter. But that is one big, fat "if."