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Updated: May 30th, 2012 4:42pm
Mackey: For at least one afternoon Francisco Liriano was 'a true ace'

Mackey: For at least one afternoon Francisco Liriano was 'a true ace'

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Never mind the fact that only two hitters in Oakland's starting lineup had batting averages over .230.

Or that Oakland entered Wednesday with the lowest team on-base percentage (.289) in the American League

And the lowest slugging percentage (.335).

Never mind all of it.

Because for one afternoon Minnesota Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano was "back" -- at least as much as a pitcher can be "back" when facing a team that averages just a shade more than three runs per game.

Liriano held a punchless A's lineup without a run through six innings -- the only time in seven starts Liriano has pitched more than 5 1/3 innings or allowed fewer than four earned runs. He also walked a personal low two, struck out a season-high and team-high nine, and induced 13 whiffs in 33 swings (39% -- well above his career and season averages).

"It's a good feeling," Liriano said.

"Just throwing. Just hitting my spots and making sure I throw the ball down like I was today. I got behind in the count a couple times, but I was down in the zone, so that's the key. ...

"I told myself before the game, this is a (new) start for me today. ... Everything that happened in the past I just have to put it behind me and move forward."

Between the whiffs Liriano's outing included an unhinged, 91-mph fastball that sailed over catcher Drew Butera's head on the first pitch of the ballgame, and also the standard mound visit by pitching coach Rick Anderson to provide Frankie with a few reminders.

"He had a couple checkpoints that he had in the bullpen sessions," Butera said. "Andy came out and talked to him that one time and said, 'Hey, slow it down a little bit. Go through your checkpoints and you'll get back on track.' That was big for him. Hopefully he'll keep using those checkpoints and keep the good outings going."

The frustrating part for the Twins is that Liriano has the physical tools and pitch repertoire to be one of the best pitchers in the American League, and he showed flashes of that in 2010 and 2011. Instead he has been one of the league's worst pitchers through the first two months of the season.

"When he's on he's an ace, 100 percent," Butera said after the game with full conviction, no blinking. "He has an electric fastball, and obviously you know about that slider. When he's got his stuff and when he's throwing strikes he's a true ace."

Oakland's Jonny Gomes, who struck out swinging twice against Liriano, told MLB.com "I don't know how the heck that guy was struggling."

Most of us don't know either.

"He has 94, 95 (mph) with his fastball, is commanding his slider and changeup. If there's one guy's stats that meant absolutely nothing today, it was his. How he was struggling, I have no idea what that's all about. He threw the ball well."

The next two months are critical for both the Twins and Liriano.

Liriano, 28, is set to become a free agent at the end of the season. This is the most important year of his career, and he knew as much heading into spring training. Liriano said in February he wasn't thinking about his next contract -- a contract that perhaps could have paid him anywhere from $20-30 million over multiple years (maybe more?) had he kept his stock high.

But the desire to improve on a rickety 2011 season was why he elected to hire a new personal trainer this offseason and throw 30 innings in the Dominican Winter League. That's why he was so determined to dominate in March.

He can still salvage value over the next four months, but there is little room for error if he intends to gain the trust of 29 other teams.

"I think the story's been told too many times about how good his stuff is," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He just has to go out on the field and get it done. (Wednesday) was a good start, and we'll work from there. ...

"You never know until the next start."

Internally the Twins are tired of Liriano's inconsistencies -- or, perhaps more accurately, his consistent failure to get the job done prior to Wednesday. But they're in a tough spot too because of Liriano's upcoming free agent status.

It's too early to say Liriano doesn't fit into the Twins' future plans, but once he hits free agency the chances of him signing elsewhere skyrocket. Under the old collective bargaining agreement the Twins would have had the opportunity to offer Liriano arbitration, thus being eligible to receive draft-pick compensation if he elected to sign elsewhere.

Under the new CBA teams must offer their free agents a one-year contract worth the average salary of the top 125 highest-paid players ($12.4 million) to be eligible for draft-pick compensation.

Will Liriano be worth $12.4 million in 2013 -- Dan Haren money?

Uh, no.

Would you trust him enough to lock him up long-term prior to free agency?

Doubtful.

The only other option, other than letting him walk for nothing after the year, is to trade him prior to the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

That date is approaching quickly.

"Whatever happens happens. There's nothing I can do about it," Liriano said, referring more to the short-term than the long-term. "I've just got to put it behind me and move forward. Just trying to go out there everything and give my team a chance to win a ballgame."

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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