Mackey: Now armed with bubble gum, Francisco Liriano boosting stock
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MINNEAPOLIS -- What if Francisco Liriano's recent success has very little to do with mechanics, confidence, velocity or stuff?
What if Liriano's resurgence can be attributed to ...
"I started chewing gum the last couple starts," Liriano said with a sheepish grin after holding the White Sox to one run in seven innings on Monday night -- an outing that shaved his ERA to 2.41 over his last six starts.
"I don't know why. ... I don't think it makes a difference at all."
Pitching coach Rick Anderson -- in a tongue-in-cheek tone -- wasn't so quick to dismiss the bubble-gum remedy.
"You see how relaxed and calm he is?" Anderson said. "And that's kind of the thing I think he's done -- instead of being clenched teeth and go-get'em, it helps calm him down and keep himself loose I guess."
One might say Liriano is here to do two things: Chew bubble gum and pitch lights-out.
OK, so chewing bubble gum probably isn't the magic pill, although Liriano might want to look into possible endorsement opportunities.
But his performance in June has been a hell of a treat for a Twins team that watched Liriano's ERA hover north of 9.00 until the middle of May.
"I don't feel any pressure right now," Liriano said. "Before, probably starting the season, yeah, because in spring training I was pitching so good. So I was thinking too much, trying to do too much. Now I'm just trying to go up there and relax and pitch the ballgame and enjoy myself."
The Liriano we've seen over the last 30 days is the dominant pitcher the Twins were hoping -- or, perhaps expecting to see out of spring training. Not only is he missing bats -- 12 swings-and-misses or more in each of his last six starts -- but he's getting groundballs and keeping the ball in the ballpark as well.
And his seven-inning outing on Monday was his longest since Aug. 20 of last season.
"We're seeing some really good fastballs, we're seeing some nice breaking balls and some nice changeups," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "More than anything else I think you're seeing a lot of pop on his fastball. It's really jumping out of his hand, he's in control out on the mound a lot better. And that's what we need. We need starts just like that one. ...
"Frankie's a strikeout pitcher, we know that. But when you get yourself in trouble is when you're trying to strike people out. With your natural ability and natural stuff, like he's got, you can strike people out. But it starts with getting ahead with the fastball, locating the fastball in and out, and he's doing that very well."
When the Twins announced on May 9 that Liriano was being demoted to the bullpen, it was a tough reality to accept for all parties.
Tough for Liriano, because one solid season likely would have guaranteed him a lucrative, multi-year deal in free agency. And tough for the Twins because Liriano is the only pitcher on the staff with ace-caliber stuff, and because he had the potential to be one of the team's most valuable trade chips.
"It killed us," Anderson said about the May demotion, "because he's supposed to be the guy, with his stuff. How many times have we said over the last few years, he's just got electric stuff, he's just got to use it and trust it and let it work. And maybe that woke him up. ...
"(Now) he's running away with it."
Anderson and Gardenhire must think in terms of continuing the push back toward .500. But had Liriano continued to toil in bullpen purgatory, the Twins front office likely would have been faced with three unappealing options:
1.) Trade him for almost nothing, as they did with Delmon Young last summer.
2.) Let him walk after the season and get nothing in return.
3.) Offer him a one-year, $12.4 million deal at the end of the season (in order to be eligible for draft-pick compensation, per MLB's new collective bargaining agreement) and hope he rejects.
With his recent string of strong performances, Liriano has helped the Twins' cause as well as his own.
Plenty of teams are likely to need pitching at some point over the next five weeks. The Miami Marlins were interested in pitching depth as of earlier this month, according to one source, but weren't excited about adding payroll. It's possible the Blue Jays, Orioles, Pirates, Cardinals and others could also be looking for a starting pitcher.
At the very least, doors are starting to open back up.
"You look at his whole demeanor on the mound, he looks confident," Anderson said. "It's not the deer-in-the-headlights look. He knows what he's doing, he's in control."