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Updated: March 18th, 2012 3:27pm
Notebook: Aside from one bad inning, Liriano dominating this spring

Notebook: Aside from one bad inning, Liriano dominating this spring

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- One bad inning.

Minnesota Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano's only real blemish this spring came in the third inning against Toronto last week when he hung an 0-2 slider to Travis Snider, leading to a four-run inning.

Those four runs -- albeit a microcosm of why Liriano frustrates the Twins -- are the only runs he has allowed in four outings (13 innings) so far this spring, including five scoreless, hitless frames against the Pittsburgh Pirates on Sunday.

Liriano struck out six, walked one and induced four groundballs out of nine balls in play.

Perhaps most telling are Liriano's peripheral numbers -- 18 strikeouts, two walks, and hitters making contact on only 74% of their swings (league average is 81%).

"Limiting walks, trying to go deeper in games, throw less pitches per batter and trying to throw first-pitch pitches for strikes," Liriano said when asked about his current checklist. "I hope they swing early like they were today. And I'm locating my fastball better than last year, too."

Pitching coach Rick Anderson is trying to get Liriano to pitch deeper into games, which means being more efficient with pitch counts. Last season Liriano averaged 17 pitches per inning, and so far this spring he is averaging 13 per inning.

These March results all stem from small sample sizes, but perhaps they are steps in the right direction.

"When you see balls taking off and him flying (open), he's out of control," Anderson said. "But all of the sudden you saw him get back into the zone. I think Joe (Mauer) does a good job of keeping him slowed down, because you see some more changeups. The changeup slows him down. ... To me the key with Frankie, what he said after he came out -- when he punched out (Neil) Walker and made a lot of great pitches in the fifth inning -- he said, 'I just tried to be easy.' But that was the key. Don't try to do too much. It's plenty good enough. And that's the step we're hoping that he kicks in."

The Twins want Liriano to work primarily off his fastball -- which was clocked mostly around 92 mph on Sunday, while at times revving to 94 -- and changeup. Anderson wants Liriano to scale back on sliders and use them as out pitches.

"When he was in trouble a lot last year, it was slider (for a ) ball, slider, slider," Anderson said. "Then all of the sudden it's 3-2, and they're sitting slider. If you can make that as an out pitch, it's much more effective. ... But if you see it all the time it's not going to be that effective. ...

"Do you want to strike out 10 guys in six innings and walk five and pitch six innings every night? Or do you want to pitch eight, nine innings? That's the key. He grew up, came up wanting to be a strikeout guy. And until he realizes it's all about pitching -- a couple easy, quick outs isn't too bad. It's a lot easier on your arm. So that's the stuff we've been talking about the last few years. There's nothing wrong with throwing a first-pitch changeup and getting a rollover, and a next pitch fastball and getting a pop-out. Six pitches, you've got an inning in instead of 20 (pitches)."

So far this spring, Liriano has found a balance -- limiting pitches while also maintaining high strikeout totals.

Today's result

Twins 10, Pirates 0

• Twins' spring record: 10-8

• Twins pitchers combined to hold the Pirates to just one hit, which is a far cry from the 17 runs on 19 hits they tallied last week at Hammond Stadium.

• Twins hitters scored 10 runs on 12 hits and three walks. "We scored two runs on outs -- good situational hitting," said acting manager Scott Ullger. "Joe Mauer realized it was second and third, and he tried to get something to pull and hit it up the middle. He got the runners in and over. And Morneau had the infield back and hit a groundball (to score a run). That's good situational hitting. You don't have to score all the time on base hits. Just knock one in like Joe did, then knock another one in like Justin did with outs."

• Brian Dozier hit his first home run of spring -- a solo shot in the seventh inning off Chris Leroux.

• With an infield single and a two-RBI double, Jamey Carroll raised his spring batting average to .115. He came into the day hitting just .043. "I take a lot of pride in my approach. I try to take pitches and try to work counts. I've had at-bats where I've had good pitches to hit but I've been off a little bit on them. So that's more frustrating. But a few times I've had some 0-2 counts and worked some walks that are meaningful to me in more ways than one. I feel like I'm seeing the ball well. I'm just not putting it into play as good as I should be."

• Morneau crushed the first pitch he saw from Charlie Morton into the Pirates' bullpen down the right field line, but foul. Shortly after, Morneau was grazed by a pitch. He later drove in a run with a groundout to second and popped out. His timing appears to be coming around, but Morneau is still hitting just .107 this spring.

Numbers game

6: Walks for Josh Willingham this spring, which ties him for the team lead with Ryan Doumit. Willingham was among the league leaders in pitches per plate appearance last season (4.09).

2: Innings thrown by Matt Capps in a 'B' game on Sunday morning. Capps allowed one hit and struck out two. He threw 26 pitches, 19 for strikes. Last season Capps pitched in multiple innings 11 times in 69 appearances, with most of those coming in April and May.

2: Strikeouts for right-hander Daniel Turpen in one inning of work in the 'B' game. The Twins acquired Turpen from the Colorado Rockies this offseason in exchange for Kevin Slowey. Turpen throws a mid-90's fastball, but he walked more batters (35) than he struck out (33) in 59 2/3 innings at Double-A last season.

Health report

• General manager Terry Ryan said Scott Baker felt fine Sunday morning after his 37-pitch bullpen session on Saturday. Baker is in line to throw another bullpen session on Monday, where he plans to ramp up velocity and effort up near 100%. If all goes well, he could be slotted back into the rotation by Thursday.

• OF Trevor Plouffe strained his right hamstring running to first base on Sunday. He will be held out of action until at least Wednesday, but the injury is not considered serious.

Overheard

"Yeah, that helped me a lot. Going home and not pitching for like six months is not good at all for me. So I go home and pitch winter ball, that helped me a lot. Get my mechanics back and work on the things I need to work on."
-- Liriano, when asked if pitching 30 innings of winter ball has helped him get off to a fast start this spring.

On deck

Monday: @ Red Sox, 12:35 p.m. RHP Jason Marquis vs. LHP Felix Doubront
Tuesday: Off day
Wednesday: @ Tigers, 12:05 p.m. RHP Nick Blackburn vs. LHP Andy Oliver

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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