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Updated: April 13th, 2011 5:34pm
Mackey: Pitching to contact, or not, isn't Francisco Liriano's problem

Mackey: Pitching to contact, or not, isn't Francisco Liriano's problem

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- After coasting through the first two innings against a pesky, but mostly unspectacular Kansas City Royals lineup on Wednesday, Minnesota Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano allowed four straight singles and two runs to start the fourth, requiring the regularly-scheduled mound visit by catcher Drew Butera and pitching coach Rick Anderson.

Following the mound conference, Wilson Betemit made it five straight singles, loading the bases with nobody out. Mike Aviles then snapped a personal 0-for-18 skid with a two-run double down the left-field line, putting the Royals up 4-1.

The Royals went on to add two more runs, courtesy of RBI singles by Alcides Escobar and Chris Getz to take a 6-1 lead they would not relinquish.

Liriano's final line -- five innings, seven earned runs, eight hits, a walk and four strikeouts -- suggests he simply got rocked. For the third time this season.

But according to manager Ron Gardenhire -- who has absolutely been critical of Liriano when the situation dictates it -- Wednesday's outing wasn't necessarily how it seemed.

"No, he was making pitches," the manager said. "The ball was just rolling through. They found some holes. Off the end of the bat, the ball rolled up the middle. Another one in the hole, a jam shot that shot through the hole there. He looped another one to right field. So, (he) was making pitches and I didn't think he was trying to overthrow the ball, and he was using all of his pitches. They just found some holes in the one inning and unfortunately for him, the runs started spinning around."

Liriano echoed similar thoughts on the performance, saying, "Location-wise, everything was better today. I made some pretty good pitches. Not perfect, but it was better. Better than last time ... A couple bloopers and groundballs. There's nothing you can do about it."

Notice a theme?

"We've told him forever that he's a strikeout pitcher," Gardenhire said before Wednesday's game. "We understand that he can strike people out, but if he really wants to become a pitcher, pitch to contact."

After frequently watching Liriano's pitch counts rise in 2010 and during spring training this past March, Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson have emphasized pitching to contact earlier in counts to their stud left-hander.

This despite the fact that Liriano induced more swings and misses (27%) than any pitcher in baseball last year, while also posting a 3.62 ERA and 2.66 FIP (third in MLB).

It's also worth noting that when Liriano did induce contact in 2010, hitters hit groundballs 54% of the time -- one of the highest groundball rates in baseball. So he's not bad in that department either.

Well, Liriano pitched to contact on Wednesday, alright. And it turned out poorly, raising his ERA on the season to 9.42.

Afterward, Liriano said he was "throwing more fastballs than I used to in the game today," adding, "I just wanted them to put them to put the ball in play, not try to strike out a lot of people."

Those fastballs, by the way, are clocked on average between 91-92 mph, as opposed to 93-94 mph last season, but A.) it's early, and B.) a 92 mph fastball with a nasty slider is still enough to be effective.

To be clear, when fans hear the phrase, "pitch to contact," they generally think of a D-league slow-pitch softball pitcher lobbing grapefruits toward home plate. That's not exactly what the Twins mean, however, when they preach it.

"Use that two-seamer, and use that slider down and in every once in a while, and that changeup, but pitch to contact early," Gardenhire said. "That'll get him deep into games. Because his stuff is so good. There's times when you need to go for the strikeout.

"That's when you save your Mr. Nasty, as they say. You throw the nasty pitches then. But those other times you need to pitch to contact to get you deeper into games. When you want that big strikeout, maybe with a man on second, and you've got an open base, take your shot with your stuff."

Of course, the problem with pitching to contact is that it oftentimes requires a wide-ranging, sure-handed set of wizards on defense -- something the Twins currently lack at many positions, especially with Tsuyoshi Nishioka out for at least six weeks. Six of those eight hits in the fifth inning off Liriano were groundballs, and one was a bloop.

Not that Liriano should be held any less responsible for allowing such crooked numbers through three starts.

"To be honest, yeah, it's a little bit hard for me," Liriano said about pitching to contact. "But I want to go deeper into games, I don't want to be throwing four innings, five innings. Whatever I have to do to go deeper into games."

But forget pitching to contact.

Forget pitching for strikeouts.

The main issue with Liriano -- whether he's pitching to contact, pitching for strikeouts or pitching a camping tent -- is the inability to realize just how good his stuff is.

He doesn't trust it.

"There's no doubt, that's exactly the way we feel," Gardenhire said. "He doesn't understand how good his stuff is. Whether it's trusting it or not, I don't know. But he just doesn't understand how good it is -- how other hitters, when they're facing him, you see the look on their face after they swing sometimes. They're like, 'where'd the ball go?' And that's how good he is."

In other words, Liriano is like that flat-bellied super model who remains insecure about her weight.

So what does he need to do in order to get back on track, besides recruiting a pack of ninjas to play defense behind him?

"Stay in control," Gardenhire said. "Control the game, not (let) the game control him. I think that's probably about as easy as you can put it. Control the game. He's got to not let the situations overcome him. Take over and control the situations."

Of course, Liriano usually seems to be OK until something bad happens. Then all hell breaks loose.

"As soon as something happens he gets a little out of whack," Gardenhire said. "That's when he's been getting over-amped, and it looks like he wants to throw the ball through the screen. And those are the situations where you need to dial it down. Just the opposite -- dial it down a little bit and let your movement take over."

For what it's worth, Liriano's level of self-assuredness seems OK, even with such poor early-season results.

"I'm very confident out there," he said, with some slight conviction. "Like I said, it was a little bit bad luck out there today. It was one bad inning. One bad inning can turn the whole game."

Liriano's next start comes Monday night in Baltimore.

Bad luck, good luck, contact, strikeouts or otherwise, he could use some positive results.

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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