Mackey: This is the Francisco Liriano the Twins needed, expected
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"He's been giving me and (pitching coach Rick Anderson) the 10, he feels 10," Gardenhire said. "I don't think you can go much higher than 10 on a 10-scale."
As if performing on his manager's cue, Liriano made one of the best lineups in baseball look puzzled and foolish all afternoon, taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning of what was probably his most dominating start of the season.
Including the six-walk no-no he threw in Chicago on May 3.
"I felt way better (Sunday) than when I threw a no-hitter," Liriano said. "To be honest, that day I threw a no-hitter, I wasn't feeling that great. This is baseball. It's crazy. ...
"That was a crazy night that night (in Chicago). Some of the guys made some good plays behind me. I feel better (Sunday)."
Since missing two starts with shoulder inflammation, Liriano has pitched lights-out, allowing only two runs (one earned) on five hits in 13 innings over his last two outings, striking out 16 and walking three.
Prior to that, starting with the no-hitter in Chicago, Liriano had allowed only three earned runs on nine hits in 22 innings over his previous three outings, striking out 15 and walking 11 -- not counting a three-inning start on May 10 against Detroit when he suffered from illness and shortness of breath.
That's a 1.44 ERA with 14 hits allowed, 31 strikeouts and 14 walks in 25 innings over five starts -- again, not counting Detroit -- since the beginning of May.
"The big thing is health," Anderson said. "Being on the DL obviously set him back, but it got him strong. He got his flexibility back. He says, 'when I throw the ball right, I don't even feel like I'm throwing.' And when he's wrong, 'it's just so hard on my body and everything.' I would imagine he could probably tell you (Sunday) for seven innings he didn't feel a thing."
The big talker in April centered around Liriano's struggles and the difficulty he experienced while trying to be more efficient.
The Twins made it clear throughout spring training that they wanted Liriano to improve on his 2010 performance by being more efficient in 2011 -- lowering pitch counts, going deeper into games.
To "pitch to contact," one might say.
To clarify, it wasn't that Gardenhire and Anderson instructed Liriano to get rid of the strikeouts and pitch to the barrel of opponents' bats in April. They simply told Liriano, "Don't be afraid (of contact)," Anderson said.
"You can't strike everyone out on the first pitch. Your stuff's pretty good to get to two strikes. ...
"That was basically 'attack them more, trust your stuff.' But if you back up farther, it's more or less, 'keep yourself under control and let your pitches work,' like you saw (Sunday)."
But Liriano lost himself early in the season, posting a 9.13 ERA with 18 walks in 23 2/3 April innings, and along with gritting through some shoulder discomfort, it seemed as if he was a mess mentally.
"To be honest, yeah," Liriano said. "I was thinking too much about mechanics, and I wasn't thinking about what pitches to throw in that situation."
Whatever he did in 2010 worked. Liriano posted a 3.62 ERA, struck out 201 batters in 191 2/3 innings, induced more groundballs (54%) than any other starter on the Twins staff, and he gave up only nine home runs all season.
Most importantly, Liriano induced more swings and misses (27%) than any pitcher in baseball.
"I've always been the power pitcher, trying to strike out people," Liriano said. "I'm not the guy who's going to get 10 groundballs or 12 groundballs in a game. I'm trying to be me, (the way) I used to pitch last year and the year before. I'm not thinking about contact at all. ...
"I feel more comfortable pitching like that (power guy)."
A streak of nine wins in 11 contests has cut the Twins' deficit in the AL Central from an insurmountable 16.5 games to merely a daunting nine. The impending returns of Joe Mauer, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Denard Span, Jim Thome and Jason Kubel will help continue the crescendo.
But any miracle run in the second half of the season likely begins and ends with Liriano and his ability or inability to perform like a top-of-the-line starter.