How Francisco Liriano saved the Twins' 2006 season, regardless of their final record.
Powered by Kyle Eliason (and published in September's GameDay)
It was the morning of May 19th. The Twins had won just 17 of their first 41 games and there was no joy in Mudville... or Minneapolis. Nothing was working for the Twins.
Some of what ailed the hometown nine could not have been foreseen. No one expected Rondell White and Carlos Silva to be world-beaters, but no one expected either to fall off the face of the Earth. Kyle Lohse was overpaid for a backend starter, but not even his harshest critics expected an 8.92 earned run average through his first eight starts. Then there were the cancers seemingly everyone but the Twins could diagnose in advance.
General manager Terry Ryan and skipper Ron Gardenhire wanted "proven veterans" to shore up the left side of the infield. Unfortunately, in third baseman Tony Batista and futility infielder Juan Castro, Twins' management got what they wanted: two veterans who had already proven they weren't good enough to be major league regulars.
Batista was run out of town by a Japanese team looking to make room for a young prospect before signing with the Twins, and Castro hadn't been able to hold onto a starting job in the eleven seasons prior to 2006. Batista didn't do anything well. The Twins labeled him a more "reliable" defender at third base, but the only thing Batista did reliably was roll onto his stomach in lieu of diving while ground balls trickled into left field. Castro coasted by on his defensive reputation but did not perform as advertised and kept Jason Bartlett down on the farm to hit .300 in Triple-A for the third consecutive season. Worst of all, the pitcher many thought the third best on the team behind Cy Young winner Johan Santana and ace stopper Joe Nathan was throwing middle relief.
Losing is a part of baseball. The best teams in the league are going to lose one out of three contests. It's easier to root for a team when they're winning, but there are still people who attend Royals games. If the local squad just doesn't have the talent to contend, fans don't have to root for them to win the division. They can root for their favorite team just to win their next game. If that doesn't work there's always the next night.
What makes cheering for a team all but impossible is the feeling that they're shooting themselves in the foot. That regardless of their ultimate ceiling, they're not trying to reach it. As the Twins slid further and farther back in the standings, that feeling was growing, resulting in frustration and disinterest. Then, on the afternoon of May 19th, things began to change.
The Twins called on rookie Francisco Liriano to end a five game losing streak and perched him atop the mound to open their three game series in Milwaukee. It was long overdue. Starters Radke, Silva, Lohse and Baker were not living up to expectations, but Liriano would. Five innings, five strikeouts and one earned run later, Twins' fans had something worth following: the wunderkind lefty with the 90 m.p.h. slider would be chewing up the best hitters in the world on a regular basis.
A week later Liriano would make the season’s first start at home. For a fourth place team the stage couldn't have been bigger. The Twins sent their phenom to the hill and the Mariners sent theirs: 20-year old Venezuelan fireballer Felix Hernandez. The future of pitching was on display for all to see and it was the Twins prodigy who would establish himself as the most promising arm in baseball. Throwing five scoreless innings and fanning six Mariners, Liriano out-dueled King Felix in a 3-0 win.
Upon inserting Liriano into the starting rotation the Twins would win a major league best 42-of-59 games. Other young players did their parts, too. Bartlett finally resurfaced from Triple-A and gave the Twins better defense at shortstop, to say nothing of his knowing which end of the bat to hold. Justin Morneau became the middle-of-the order threat Twins fans had hoped. Nick Punto began doing his best Luis Castillo impression upon taking over the third base duties. The Twins were cruising and closing in on both division leaders Detroit and the wildcard, but on July 28th, although no one knew it at the time, one of the wheels fell off.
At 12-3, Liriano took the mound against the division leading Tigers to defend his league leading earned run average. He threw eight innings of three-hit ball and tied a career high with 12 strikeouts in a game. But all was not well. In addition to getting a no decision in a game the Twins went on to lose in extra innings, Liriano was scratched from his next start with the ominous diagnosis of soreness in his left forearm. Team officials reassured the press that it was nothing major and Liriano would only miss one start.
On August 7th Liriano would again face the Tigers, but it was clear he wasn't healthy. He allowed ten hits and four runs before being chased from the game after the fourth inning. After the game it was reiterated that Liriano had a muscular problem and that nothing was wrong with his surgically repaired elbow. The Twins were going to hold him out of action and run some precautionary tests, waiting until the swelling in his arm went down before performing an MRI.
Twins nation collectively held its breath. Much of the Twins success was driven by the best one-two punch in the majors: the left-handed tandem of Santana and Liriano. The Twins, who still had ground to gain to capture either the wildcard or division crown could ill-afford to lose Liriano, arguably the team's best pitcher this season. As gloomy as the situation seemed, at least fans were holding their breath. Two months earlier very few in Twins Territory would have batted an eye and most would have been, as ESPN personality Tony Kornheiser said, "waiting for sex-boat season."
Then news broke. Much of it was good. The MRI had revealed an "abnormality" in Liriano's elbow, but it was only scarring, far from a new tear. Liriano was tearing apart the weakened portion of his once-injured and healed ulnar collateral ligament. The pain he felt caused him to alter his mechanics leading to cascade injuries, first in his forearm, then in his shoulder. Tendonitis resulted in that shoulder resulting in the Twins putting Liriano on a shoulder-strengthening program prior to any throwing program, which is where things currently stand.
How soon Liriano is back is anyone's guess, but how well the Twins hold up in his absence will be as important a factor as Liriano's health. If they're out of the race in mid-September, Twins fans probably won't see Liriano again until 2007.
Santana and Nathan are their ever-dominant selves. Hunter is back from the disabled list. Radke, in his swan song, is pitching through a torn shoulder on cortisone and guts. Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, and Punto are having career years and new hitting coach Joe Varva has the Twins leading the majors in batting average. It might be enough to contend. If rookie flamethrower Matt Garza can bury his jitters and start throwing his breaking stuff for strikes to compliment his 97 m.p.h. fastball, he may be able to fill part of the hole Liriano's departure from the rotation created.
But even if the Twins fall short, even if Liriano never sets foot on the field again this year, the 22 year-old rookie did something that might be more important than winning a division. He gave fans a reason to follow the Twins again.
For a little over two months Liriano dominated the major leagues. The numbers speak for themselves: 11 wins to three losses in just 15 starts, 110 punchouts to 89 base runners in 97 2/3 innings, a phenomenal 1.96 earned run average as a starter, and an All-Star selection. Liriano picked up the team when the fans needed it most and made every start an event. The Twins turned their season around and fans came back to the ballpark, all thanks to Liriano's golden left arm. Not bad for a player who was once a throw-in when trading away AJ Pierzynski.
Kyle Eliason would like to use this space to recognize Chris Vallancourt of Massachusetts who had the foresight to draft Francisco Liriano as early as the fifth round in the writer's fantasy baseball league.