Archive for Monday, August 4, 2008

Commentary: Twins in position to make a run

August 4, 2008

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— The Twins played game No. 111 of the 2006 season on Aug. 7. It was a 9-3 loss in Detroit. This dropped the Twins to 65-46, putting them a robust 101â2 games behind the Tigers and a half-game behind the Chicago White Sox in the American League Central.

The Twins had been on 40-13 run to reach that record. They finished 31-20 in the final 51 games and passed the Tigers on the last day of the season to win the division.

The Twins played game No. 111 of the 2008 season Sunday at the Metrodome. It was a 6-2 victory over Cleveland that put the Twins at 62-49 and in first place by a half-game over the White Sox and seven games over Detroit.

The Twins have been on a 30-14 run to reach this position. The White Sox and the Tigers are facing enough issues that it seems unlikely the Twins would require another 31-20 finish to claim the Central.

Clearly, these Twins are in better position in the standings and in quality of competition than was the case two years ago, and there's another comparison that could favor this group:

The losing pitcher in Game 111 for the '06 Twins was Francisco Liriano. Three days later, he went on the disabled list because of a sore elbow. He underwent Tommy John surgery three months later.

The winning pitcher in Game 111 on Sunday was Liriano. This was the first time in precisely two full seasons that he took the mound fully prepared to pitch in a big-league game.

Back in 2006, he returned for a three-inning start in September before leaving because the elbow pain returned. He missed the 2007 season and did not open this season with the Twins.

Against sound judgment, the Twins recalled Liriano to replace an injured Kevin Slowey for three April starts.

"He didn't have anything," said manager Ron Gardenhire, meaning the Liriano of April was without control, velocity or movement with his pitches.

He went back to Class AAA Rochester. He was there for 17 starts, a 10-2 record and a 3.16 ERA before returning Sunday.

There were a couple of important discoveries: A) Liriano still needs work in getting his fastball to catch a hunk of the plate rather than a slice of a batter's box; and B) big-league hitters have about the same fondness for hitting his slider as was the case when he was baseball's pitching phenomenon for 21â2 months in 2006.

"The slider was 89 to 91 (miles per hour ) in 2006, and it took an unbelievable dive," Gardenhire said. "Now, the slider is 83 to 86, but the movement is still great."

The tradeoff in those lost 5 mph is that on Sunday it didn't make you cringe to see Liriano torque his left arm and elbow to get the ferocious combination of speed and down thrust.

Sunday's slider wasn't the freaky, unhittable pitch of 2006, but Gardenhire offered this accurate summation: "It's still better than most."

Liriano finished with six scoreless innings in his first big-league victory since July 23, 2006.

And who knows? Two years later, a Liriano on the comeback trail could make the Twins that much tougher to handle than a 2006 division winner that functioned without Liriano for its final 51 games.

Then again, that other lefty, that Johan fellow, isn't around here anymore.

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