Souhan: Twins need strategy for Liriano for playoffs
CHICAGO -- For four innings on Tuesday night, Francisco Liriano auditioned for the job of Twins ace. In the fifth and sixth innings, he raised a philosophical question: Can your ace be someone who often looks like he needs a hug? For four innings...
CHICAGO -- For four innings on Tuesday night, Francisco Liriano auditioned for the job of Twins ace.
In the fifth and sixth innings, he raised a philosophical question: Can your ace be someone who often looks like he needs a hug?
For four innings in this year's September showdown with the White Sox, Liriano woke the echoes of his 2006 season, when he earned the nickname "Franchise."
In the fifth and sixth, he suffered brainlock after fielding a grounder and received so many visitors, the pitcher's mound look like a Southside "El" stop.
At times, Liriano displayed the dynamic pitches that made him the most unhittable pitcher in the game for a few months in '06. According to radar-gun readings at U.S. Cellular Field and on MLB.com, his fastball touched 97 miles per hour, and his slider reached 90. By those measures, his arm is fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery he underwent four years ago.
His composure has not caught up to his velocity.
He started the fifth with his seventh strikeout, fanning A.J. Pierzynski. Omar Vizquel doubled, and that's when Liriano went from "Franchise" to frazzled.
He walked No. 9 hitter Gordon Beckham. Vizquel stole third. With runners on first and third, Juan Pierre hit a sharp grounder right to Liriano, who fielded it cleanly.
It was the perfect double-play grounder, but Liriano panicked. He checked the runner at third, then threw out Pierre at first. Instead of an inning-ending double play, he had two runners in scoring position, with Alexei Ramirez coming to the plate.
Ramirez, at that point, was 9-for-19 against Liriano. Ramirez worked the count full. With first base open, Liriano could have thrown a slider in the dirt, knowing that Ramirez likely either would strike out or walk. Instead, Liriano threw a fastball down the middle.
Ramirez lined it to center for two runs, and it was 2-2.
When Liriano struggles, his body language suggest that he needs time in a dark room with soft music. In the fifth inning, catcher Joe Mauer visited him twice, and pitching coach Rick Anderson made a trip of his own. In the sixth, Anderson went back to the mound.
Liriano left after six innings, with the White Sox leading 3-2.
What do you make of that, if you're the Twins? What do you make of Liriano?
He's one of the best pitchers in the American League. He was the AL pitcher of the month in April, before amassing a 5.15 ERA in May. He was 7-0 with a 2.22 ERA since the All-Star game, entering his start on Tuesday in Chicago.
He can look dominant. He can look lost.
If the Twins win the division, do they dare start Liriano in Game 1 of a playoff series, considering that his worst outings have resulted when he has felt the most pressure, either because of the opposing pitcher or the weight of the game?
If you're the Twins, do you judge him by the quality of his pitches or the quantity of his butterflies?
Tuesday, in a game that could have all but buried the White Sox, Liriano, pitching as well as he has in four years, pitched four shutout innings, then allowed six baserunners in the fifth and sixth, costing his team the lead.
If the Twins make the playoffs, they'll probably face the Rays or the Yankees. Would Liriano be able to handle a Game 1 start against C.C. Sabathia or David Price? Or would the Twins be better served giving the Game 1 start to Carl Pavano, and choosing poise over stuff?
Souhan writes for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.