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Updated: April 21st, 2010 10:53pm
With Liriano, proceed with cautious optimism

With Liriano, proceed with cautious optimism

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
If Kevin Slowey looked like Greg Maddux on Tuesday night, then Francisco Liriano looked like the 1999 version of Pedro Martinez tonight, tossing eight shutout innings while striking out six and walking two, as the Twins blanked the Indians 4-0 at Target Field.


There's no question Liriano is "back" -- maybe not to the extent of where he was in 2006, but compared to 2008 and 2009, Liriano is dusting opposing hitters with ease, and he's doing it with a 93-94 mph fastball and wicked off-speed stuff.

And this isn't just a two-week sample size. Liriano, who walked off to a standing ovation on Wednesday night, has been dealing straight filth since winter ball in December.

"He feels good, and his arm's healthy, and he's trusting his catcher. That's huge," manager Ron Gardenhire said.

"It's getting back to the point of trusting, and your mechanics staying consistent. And they have (stayed consistent). He's kept his arm up and on top of the ball, and behind the ball with his hand, and that's good stuff."

Good stuff, indeed, but let's proceed with some optimistic caution here.

Yes, optimistic caution. Or cautious optimism. Whichever.

Liriano has essentially gone from being a question mark as the fifth starter to a possible ace in this Twins rotation over the last two weeks (unless you were among those who fully bought into the offseason hype, then kudos), but his last two dominating outings came against a stagnant Red Sox squad and a Cleveland Indians lineup that would make Scott Aldred look like Sandy Koufax.

Coming into Wednesday night's games, the Red Sox had a team on-base percentage of .323, which is uncharacteristically low for them. The Indians are a mess in all areas of offense -- .214 batting average, .303 on-base percentage, .338 slugging, and only one hitter, Shin-Soo Choo, with more than six RBIs.

The Indians, in all honesty, are really, really bad right now.

Is it OK to be excited about Liriano's impressive burst out of the gate? Absolutely.

But the two most important questions are A.) can he continue to harness his control and locate the fastball, especially against hot, disciplined offenses? And B.) how will he respond when faced with the inevitable crooked-number thrashing at some point?

The physical tools are there. Again. But the mental part is the one to keep an eye on now.

"You have an arm injury and a lot of things go through your mind," Gardenhire said. "You want to throw the ball the way you did before you hurt your arm, but you have to go through a process. And there's going to be some ups and downs. He's at a point now where he's got his confidence back, and that's the biggest thing in this game."

Confidence is the key word here. Liriano's confidence has faded in and out over the last two years, and much of it revolved around his arm strength and location.

I'm not ready to call Liriano mentally fragile, but he has struggled to keep it together upstairs since his 2008 return. and for good reason. As a young pitcher, Liriano derived his confidence from a 96 mph fastball and a slider that made Randy Johnson blush. When those tools were taken away through Tommy John surgery, so too was Liriano's confidence.

And confidence doesn't rebuild itself quickly.

"There were some games (last year) where I felt good, physically and mentally, but still, I couldn't locate my fastball," Liriano said. "When you don't locate your pitches, you don't get the result you want to.

"My arm was dead as soon as the season started, but I just wanted to keep pitching. I hate being on the DL. Nobody wants to be on the DL."

If you recall, the Twins placed Liriano on the disabled list last August with elbow fatigue. When he came back in September, Liriano finished the season pitching out of the bullpen.

Oh, how times have apparently changed.

"I've been very confident since spring training. Just to be able to throw the ball over the plate, to locate my pitches. That's the biggest thing for me."

Liriano's early season success is not a fluke, I assure you. He is flat-out nasty once again.

But let's just chill for a minute.

The Indians are terrible.

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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