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Updated: April 15th, 2010 3:57pm
Is Liriano back to nasty?

Is Liriano back to nasty?

© AP 2010
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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
Francisco Liriano is certainly the wild card on this Twins pitching staff. If he pitches poorly like he did in 2009, the Twins will be left scrambling for a fifth starter.


But if he pitches at even 80% of the level he was at in 2006, the Twins are looking at a top-of-the-rotation arm who may still have "ace" potential.

Coming off a four-month stretch during the offseason when Liriano mowed down winter league and spring training batters, questions lingered as to whether the once-untouchable phenom can carry his momentum, and electrifying stuff, into the regular season.

His first start of the season left plenty to be desired in the boxscore. Liriano threw six innings against the White Sox, allowing three earned runs, five walks, four hits, while striking out only three.

On Thursday, however, Liriano followed up with a classic gem -- seven scoreless innings against the Boston Red Sox, allowing only four hits, two walks, while striking out eight, as the Twins (7-3) steamrolled to a 8-0 victory.

"My arm feels great, way better," Liriano said. "That's a good thing for me. Physically I feel good, mentally I feel great. [I] just have my confidence back."

Eighteen of Liriano's 21 outs on Thursday came via strikeout or groundout. You'll have to excuse me for nostalgically looking back to 2006, when Liriano lead the major leagues in strikeouts per nine innings (10.71) and ranked near the top in ground ball rate (55%).

Ground balls and strikeouts are tools of the elite, and Liriano hasn't induced nearly enough of either over the last two years.

"I can honestly tell you, the ball is jumping out of his hand," Ron Gardenhire said after Thursday's game. "His slider is snapping really good."

So what can we expect from Liriano going forward? Was his performance against Boston a fluke? Or will he finally turn that corner, post-Tommy John?

The answer to Liriano's potential resurgence likely lies with whether or not he can maintain his current "stuff" -- as in pitch velocity, slider break, and the overall nastiness that was missing for two seasons.

"We've seen him back in '06 be as dominant as any pitcher in this league, and when you start hearing all those reports about disappearing sliders and a fastball up in the mid-90's, we've seen all that before," Gardenhire said. "You always hope you're going to get a pitcher back after major surgery... and he's still got a ways to go, but his stuff is there. There's no doubt about it. His stuff is definitely there."

Back in 2006, Liriano had it all -- break, velocity, change of speeds, etc.

I spoke with Jason Kubel and J.J. Hardy before Thursday's game to discuss what it's like for batters when a pitcher has a wide velocity gap between fastball and slider or fastball and changeup.

Hardy said it's much easier for hitters to get their timing down against a pitcher who only has a five or six-mph difference between fastball and offspeed stuff, as opposed to, say, an eight or 10-mph difference. Plus, if the velocity gap is shorter, hitters can be fooled but still make solid contact with a pitch.

"As a hitter, you can definitely notice it," Kubel said about the gap in velocities. "But a lot of times it depends on the break."

On July 2, 2006, the Brewers came to the Metrodome to face the Twins in an interleague game. Hardy was sidelined with an ankle injury, but his Milwaukee teammates were essentially sent out to be buzz-sawed by Liriano, who touched the upper 90's on his fastball and low 90's on his breaking ball that day, en route to eight shutout innings and 12 strikeouts.

"I was in the dugout, and my teammates were like, 'holy [expletive], this guy is unreal,'" Hardy said.

During that '06 campaign, Liriano's fastball averaged 95 mph, his slider 87 mph, and his changeup 84.6 mph. When he reared back, he touched upper 90's on the four-seamer. Not to mention, that slider had significantly more movement on it.

By contrast, in 2009, Liriano's fastball averaged only 91.5 mph, while his slider averaged 86 mph, and his changeup 84.7 mph. His slider was still effective, but lifeless compared to the sweeping death hook of three years prior.

Looking at MLB Pitch F/X data from his first start against Chicago -- and after watching him live on Thursday against Boston -- Liriano's average fastball is back up near 94 mph, while his offspeed stuff sits in the mid-80's. It's also clear that his slider has much more movement on it than in '09.

Hypothetically, this should translate to more strikeouts, more ground balls, and fewer home runs (Liriano's HR rate doubled from '06-'09).

They key here for Liriano is harnessing his control, specifically with the fastball, and finding ways to go deeper into ballgames.

"Once he sets the tone with his fastball, everything else is gravy for him, because he's got a great changeup and he's got a great slider," Gardenhire said. "Where he got himself into trouble a lot last year was yanking his fastball; trying to throw away, and yanking it inside. He couldn't locate it, but he's done a lot better with that."

So, to answer the question, was Thursday's gem against Boston a fluke?

Signs point to no.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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