Liriano remains work in progress
Lefty shows signs of former self, but has more work to do
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Left-hander Francisco Liriano said that he threw at "100 percent" in his start on Monday, the first time he's done so all spring.But one question remains: Can Liriano command his pitches well enough while throwing at that effort level to make the Twins rotation out of spring? The left-hander endured yet another so-so start in his third spring start. Liriano pitched three-plus innings against the Marlins, facing three batters in the fourth inning, and gave up three runs on five hits in a 4-3 loss. Pitching coach Rick Anderson said that he was pleased to see Liriano finally start to let go with all of his pitches. Now the task for the 24-year-old is to show he can pitch consistently at that effort level. "I told him before this start, 'If you're not cutting it loose and all of a sudden you do start cutting it loose, you're not going to have the command because you're not used to that motion,'" Anderson said. "But now that he has [cut it loose], we can start working on it in the bullpen and see if the command will come." Just 15 months removed from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, Liriano has admitted he's been cautious in ramping up his effort too early in spring. He limited himself to just "80 percent" effort in his first spring start, and then upped that level to "90-95 percent" in his second outing. But while he finally was giving it everything that he had on Monday, Liriano's results were not much different than his previous start. When facing the Red Sox five days ago, Liriano pitched two-plus innings and gave up three runs on four hits. In that start against Boston, most of Liriano's problems were due to a lack of command with his slider. On Monday, Liriano said that his slider was better, while his struggles were caused by an inability to locate his fastball. There were positives from Liriano's outing. He increased his pitch count, throwing a total of 59 pitches against the Marlins, and he still has felt no pain or discomfort in his arm. Still, there is room for improvement. "I need to locate my fastball and get some people out," Liriano said. "I need to throw more innings and throw less pitches. I need to throw more strikes."
The Twins have repeatedly said that they don't expect the pitcher to be completely back to form after such a long layoff from pitching. They've noticed that his stamina isn't quite there yet, and he's working to find that consistency again on the mound.But with only two weeks remaining until Opening Day, a decision concerning Liriano's ability to pitch in the rotation is quickly approaching. So what does the team need to see from him to determine whether or not he's ready to head to Minnesota? "We just want to see him throw the ball and continue working," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You hope to start seeing more crispness on his breaking balls and a little better command. He spins off a few balls still. But it's just about him pitching. With the surgery and his delayed arrival to camp due to visa troubles, Liriano is still behind many of the other pitchers in camp. But Gardenhire said on Monday that the decision on whether to break camp with the pitcher will be based solely on if Liriano appears ready and not on how he's done compared with other arms. "He is different than the rest of the guys," Gardenhire said. "We have to make a decision on him by what's good for him. We'll see how he does his next couple outings. He looked better today. Hopefully he'll look better the next time." The Twins seem willing to wait it out until the very end with Liriano to see if he indeed can be ready. Liriano is expected to make at least two more starts this spring. Gardenhire hinted that if necessary, the left-hander could even remain behind in Fort Myers to get a third start since he would be at the back end of the rotation. But while having a fully ready Liriano could be a boost to the Twins, Gardenhire said that there is still a chance the team could be without him to start the year. "It's going to be about where he's at by the end of Spring Training, and if it looks like he's throwing the ball over and has command of all of his pitches," Gardenhire said. "At the end, we'll make a decision. If he's not ready, he's not ready."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.