Monday, June 26, 2006

Acing History

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Thursday’s last start against the Houston Astros and Roger Clemens has produced the inevitable backlash. Francisco Liriano’s effective performance propelled him into a national story, not because he was any more or less dominant than he has been, but because the national media was on hand to witness it. The hype-o-meter surged, and local sports fans and commentators instinctively cautioned against overreacting. Teams may catch up to him the second time around, we’re warned.

Poppycock. These are words that apply to a host of young pitchers, but the hype on Liriano isn’t based on one start, or even on a couple of months of success. Those are just supporting a longer history that gives a more definite vision of what expectations should be. That history includes being a top five prospect in the Giants system. That history includes more than a strikeout per inning at every single stop in his six year professional career. Most of all, that history says expectations for a top of the rotation left-handed ace are well founded.

Whether those expectations should include serious consideration as a Cy Young candidate this year is debatable, but the numbers are there. The only thing keeping Liriano from leading the league in ERA is the number of innings he’s pitched, and he’s likely just two starts from closing that gap. He’ll get at least eighteen more starts to improve on his seven wins (and that’s with just seven games started this season). His strikeout numbers, due to his late start, will likely never catch up to teammate Johan Santana, but he has a decent chance of finishing among the top seven in the league.

To be sure, there are dangers that young pitchers must face, and the top one is their health. This is especially true for Liriano because of his age and his history. Younger pitchers are at a higher risk for injuries as they grow into their bodies, and Liriano is just 22 years old. In addition, Liriano is likely only on the Twins because he battled shoulder problems while with San Francisco. If pleas from sports commentators to “keep pressure off the kid” include watching his pitch counts, then by all means, keep pressure off the kid.

Still, Liriano isn’t most young pitchers. He isn’t just “pitching smart”, or “showing poise”, or “letting his fielders do their jobs”. He is dominating. This isn’t a surprise to those who look beyond his call-up last September. So expect the best, pray for health, but most of all, enjoy the ride.


The 1965 season holds a special place for a generation of Twins fans’ hearts despite our boys ultimately finishing second best to the Dodgers. The Twins won the first two games in Met Stadium, which meant beating Hall of Fame pitchers Don Drysdale and Sandy Koufax. They were not as fortunate in Dodger Stadium, and lost all three games before coming back to the Met.

It also set the stage for the greatest clutch postseason performance in Minnesota history, courtesy of Jim “Mudcat” Grant. Think Kirby Puckett’s Game Six or Jack Morris’ Game Seven were impressive? Facing elimination, Grant not only pitched a complete game, holding the Dodgers to one run (on a solo home run), he also slugged his own three-run bomb to place the 5-1 victory out of reach.

However, those heroics were overshadowed the next afternoon. The difference, as it so often was with the Dodgers in the sixties, was Koufax. Dodgers manager Walter Alston (who had also managed the St. Paul Saints) decided to start Koufax on just two days rest, figuring that Drysdale could bail the team out if Koufax tired. It was an unnecessary backup plan. Koufax gave up just three hits while pitching a complete game shutout, in a Dodgers 2-0 victory. Twins fans would need to wait 22 more years for their first world championship.

On the Hill
Dodgers: Derrek Lowe (6-3, 2.90)

  • 2005: 12-15, 222 IP, 146 K, 3.61 ERA

  • 2006: 106.2 IP, 90 H, 54 K, 32 BB, 7 HR

  • When Carlos Silva sleeps at night, he dreams about having Lowe’s career. The two are similar, with Lowe being an extreme groundball pitcher who relies on double plays to erase baserunners. He’s parlayed that skill and his inning-eating ability into a ten year career, including a world championship. It also earned him a four-year, $36 million contract through 2008.

  • Lowe is having a fantastic year, second only to 2002, where he ended up with a 2.58 ERA, 21 wins with Boston, good for third place in the AL Cy Young voting. He pitched a complete game in his last start, a 4-2 win over Seattle.

Twins: Francisco Liriano (7-1, 2.17 ERA)

  • 2005: 1-2, 24.2 IP, 33 K, 5.70 ERA

  • 2006: 66.1 IP, 51 H, 74 K, 19 BB, 3 HR

  • See “Acing History”, above

  • Please, god, keep this kid healthy

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