I can still vividly recall Francisco Liriano's first start of the 2006 season.
The date was May 19, and the struggling Twins were in Milwaukee to face the Brewers. I was in attendance at Miller Park that day, sitting along the first base line and eager to see the electric 22-year-old southpaw break into the rotation.
It had been a long time coming. Over the first six weeks of a season that saw the Twins stumble to a 10-game deficit in the AL Central, Liriano was a rare bright spot, thoroughly dominating opposing hitters in short bullpen stints.
He excelled that day, hurling five innings of one-run ball while allowing only two singles and facing two batters over the minimum. For good measure, he chipped in an RBI double at the plate. Frankie Franchise had arrived.
He built on that first start and quickly became baseball's most dazzling rookie, figuring prominently into the biggest turnaround in franchise history by nearly guaranteeing a victory every time he took the mound. In 14 starts through the end of July, Liriano went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA and 105-to-28 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 92 2/3 innings, holding opposing hitters to a .162 average and .482 OPS. Meanwhile, the Twins went from seven games below .500 to 17 above.
Liriano was a specimen the likes of which I'd never witnessed as a Twins fan. Sure, I'd seen some great starting pitchers come through; Brad Radke succeeded on pinpoint control, while Johan Santana kept hitters off-balance with a devastatingly deceptive changeup.
But Liriano was pure gas. He unleashed 96 mph fastballs and mixed in a steady diet of biting sliders that whipped across the zone in the upper-80s.
The young Dominican was an absolute joy to watch, and a gleaming beacon of hope for the club's future, so I was heartbroken when he slumped off the mound grasping his elbow after recording six outs against the Athletics in mid-September. He would require the dreaded Tommy John surgery, leading to an arduous road to recovery that featured far more valleys than peaks.
He missed the entire 2007 season while rehabbing. In 2008, he was mostly effective, if underwhelming. In 2009, he was a complete mess, unable to find the strike zone and maddeningly inconsistent. Following the season, he regained his confidence while pitching in winter ball and carried that momentum forward to put together his most complete season in 2010, looking at times very similar to the prodigy that took the league by storm in '06.
But last year, it was back to square one. Liriano's command unraveled, his shoulder barked, his work ethic came into question, and he gradually lost the confidence of his teammates, coaches and fans.
Now, with the 2012 season approaching, the Twins are looking to rebound from a disastrous campaign, and their ability to do so will be highly contingent on Liriano's ability to do the same.
In a rotation littered with mediocre contact pitchers, Liriano stands out as perhaps the one true hope for a dominant front line starter. He was obviously a far cry being that guy last year, so if the Twins are to contend this season they will almost certainly require a massive transformation from their most talented – and frustrating – starting pitcher.
Does he have it in him? Ever the Frankie diehard, I'll choose to focus on the similar metamorphosis that took place from 2009 to 2010 (especially since that offseason, like this one, featured a stint in the Dominican Winter League).
And I'll invariably drift back to that day in May of 2006 when this whole crazy ride began.