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Updated: May 10th, 2012 8:36pm
Zulgad: Twins about out of answers when it comes to Francisco Liriano

Zulgad: Twins about out of answers when it comes to Francisco Liriano

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by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Minnesota Twins needed Francisco Liriano to pitch like a staff ace this season. They needed the lefthander to be the bulldog who didn't just want the ball but demanded it. The guy who looked at a losing streak and declared he would singlehandedly end it.

If he was ever going to become that guy this would have been the season. Entering the last year of his contract, Liriano had millions of reasons to take charge.

Instead, the Twins have gotten the same old Frankie.

The guy who gets demoted to the bullpen after starting the season 0-5 with a staff-worst 9.45 earned-run average and informs the media he's content to be in Minnesota.

"I'm happy to be here and try to do anything to help the team win some ballgames," Liriano said Thursday, a day after losing his spot in the starting rotation. "From the bullpen, starting, whatever I have to do."

General manager Terry Ryan and manager Ron Gardenhire are hoping that what Liriano will do is get right mentally and become a productive member of the starting rotation.

That's a sad statement considering the rest of the starters on this pitching staff would love to have Liriano's stuff. A fastball that averages 92 miles per hour and still touches 94 on the radar gun. A slider that hits 83 miles per hour, and a changeup that can be mixed in.

Yet despite this arsenal of pitches, Liriano finds himself no longer deemed worthy of being a starter in this subpar rotation for the second time in the season's first month and a half.

After posting an 11.03 ERA and walking one more batter than he struck out in his first four starts, Liriano was skipped over for one start so he could work with pitching coach Rick Anderson a couple of times in the bullpen.

The results were far from encouraging. And, by the way, tell me who the last guy is who had a bad side session?

Liriano gave up four runs, seven hits, two home runs with three walks and five strikeouts in a season-high 5 1/3 innings of a 4-0 loss on May 1 to the Los Angeles Angels. He followed that by surrendering four runs, five hits and a home run with three walks and four strikeouts in five innings of an 8-3 loss Monday to the Angels.

That proved to be the latest final straw for a pitcher who was 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 31 starts in 2010 but has gone 9-15 since.

In a host of moves made after a 6-2 loss Wednesday to the Angels, a loss that dropped the Twins to an embarrassing 8-22 on the season, Gardenhire announced Liriano had been lifted from the rotation again.

When the Twins skipped Liriano's turn in the rotation a couple of weeks ago, Gardenhire made it clear he didn't want the veteran working in relief and said he would spend his time trying to get right by throwing on the side.

That didn't work so now the hope is he can get right by coming out of the bullpen and likely entering games with no one on base to start an inning.

One has to wonder if that's the best idea or if the wise decision would have been to send Liriano to Triple-A Rochester to make a few starts and continue in the role in which the Twins so badly need him to succeed.

Because Liriano is a veteran of five-plus years, the Twins can dispatch him to Triple-A once without sending him through waivers as long as they get his consent. Liriano said earlier this season that he would be open to going to the minors.

"We talked about him going to Rochester and starting, but that's not the same hitters you're going to see down there as you are up here," Gardenhire said before the Twins played Toronto on Thursday at Target Field. "You can go down there and throw the ball over and you're going to get people chasing the ball all over the place. You can dominate down there.

"We need him to face major league hitting and bear down and get some major league hitters out. I'm not talking about a period of time here we'd like to see him maybe get out there. Who knows? I'm not going to put it in days, but he needs to face major league hitters. He needs to get through that. That's how we'll know how he's throwing, not down there. We need to see him. If he goes down there, I won't see him."

The argument to this is that if Liriano is in a situation where he needs to get right mentally, doesn't he need to be more worried about what he's doing, no matter the level at which he might be working?

What has become clear is that the Twins are running out of ideas for what to do with Liriano and they eventually are going to run out of time when it comes to getting his value to a point where he can get anything in return.

At one point Thursday, Gardenhire said that Liriano wasn't "mad at anybody" about the move to the bullpen.

That's part of the problem.

Liriano should be mad. He should be livid. He shouldn't be happy just to be in Minnesota or just to be in the bullpen.

Liriano is four-plus seasons removed from having Tommy John surgery on his left elbow and at the age of 28 there is no reason why he shouldn't be the ace of this staff. He says he's healthy and certainly looked good in spring training when he struck out 33 and walked only five.

The Twins don't want to come out and say it, but there appears to be a chance that if he pitches well in relief he could be left in the bullpen with the hope that eventually a contender will give up something (anything) for him and keep him in that role.

Right now, Liriano's value is at zero and the sad thing is it doesn't seem to bother him. 

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Judd | @1500ESPNJudd | Mackey & Judd
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