Mackey: It's time for Francisco Liriano to step up
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- There have been extended stretches over the past two seasons when Minnesota Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano has been one of the most unhittable and dominant pitchers in baseball.
This is not hyperbole.
There have also been extended stretches over the past two seasons when Liriano has been one of the wildest pitchers in baseball, completely unable to throw strikes in any scenario.
So, at age 28, heading into a contract season with millions of dollars on the line, what is the No. 1 factor preventing Liriano from putting it all together?
"Consistency with his delivery," said pitching coach Rick Anderson after morning workouts on Monday.
"I asked him today, 'What was your whole focus in the 'pen?'" He added, referring to Liriano's 53-pitch bullpen session. "'Staying tall.' He'll throw a bad one, and I'll ask him, 'What'd you do?' He said, 'I dropped.' So he'll start to see it hopefully. It's time to see it."
Anderson and manager Ron Gardenhire have lost more hair working with Liriano over the past half-decade than they have working with any other pitcher.
With some of the best stuff in baseball, even post-surgery, Liriano is the baseball equivalent to a super model who thinks she's overweight. He doesn't always trust his 92-mph moving fastball. Or his 85-mph, sweeping slider. Or that turn-over changeup.
So he often compensates by trying to be too fine. And if that's not the problem, Liriano frequently loses track of his proper mechanics.
Anderson referenced Liriano's June 12 start against the Texas Rangers last season, when the left-hander struck out nine, walked nobody and allowed no runs in eight innings against one of the most dangerous lineups in baseball.
"That was no-hit stuff," Anderson said. "And you look at it, he was tall, everything was angled, everything was underneath. Repeating it. Then his next time out he's collapsing and overthrowing and trying to do too much. You've got to stay within yourself and trust in that this is good enough."
That's Liriano in a nutshell.
He no-hits the White Sox on May 3, then leaves early with an illness after giving up crooked numbers to the Tigers seven days later.
He dominates the Rangers on June 12, then gets shelled six times in 10 starts shortly after.
He strikes out 201 batters with a 3.62 ERA in 2010, then posts one of the worst starter ERAs (5.09) in baseball one year later.
The 53-pitch session Liriano threw to catcher Rene Rivera on Monday was about 15 more pitches than most guys throw in their first spring 'pen sessions. Spring training bullpen sessions are about building toward April 1 and creating a crescendo.
Liriano threw more because he's currently ahead of the curve after pitching almost 30 innings in the Dominican Winter League.
"Last time I pitched was like two weeks ago, so I'm ready to go," Liriano said in the Hammond Stadium clubhouse on Monday. "I feel way better than I did last year. It's a good thing."
It's the second time in three years Liriano has pitched in winter ball. The only time he didn't -- prior to the 2011 season -- he came to camp with a strained shoulder after overdoing it with his own throwing sessions. He also landed on the DL for 15 days with shoulder soreness in May, then missed another three weeks later in the season with more of the same discomfort.
Whether a lack of winter ball correlated directly to such a lackluster season in 2011 is unknown. But Liriano says winter ball makes him feel more comfortable heading into spring training. It also gives him a chance to work on things against lesser, albeit formidable, competition.
Liriano said he worked mostly on his mechanics, but also on locating his fastball better.
"It's amazing pitching over there," Liriano said. "It means a lot to me pitching over there. ...
"I was just trying to get better every pitch over there. We'll see this year. I'm just going to do my best and try to do my job. We'll see how it goes."
He added, "Nothing is bothering me right now. Everything feels fine. So I feel a lot better than last year."
Anderson watched Monday's bullpen session closely and offered mostly positive reinforcement.
"There ya go, that looks great. Right there."
"Yes, that's the dirty."
"Look at that two-seamer turn over, good stuff."
"Well, 95% of it is positive," Anderson said afterward, "But you get that little part of it that you say, 'You know what? It's time. It's time you start applying and feeling it and repeating it and doing it. It's time. I can't tell you enough, because when you do it you're great. When you don't, you know what's going on. So it's your time.'"
Of course, if Anderson -- or anybody -- knew the magic potion for creating consistency with Liriano, there'd be no question who the ace of the Twins' staff would be.
"No question. Absolutely. But that's the 5% when you get flustered sometimes and say, 'It's time.'"