MINNEAPOLIS — Francisco Liriano has shown throughout his career that he can be a dominating pitcher. But Friday’s outing may have been Liriano’s most dominant start to date.
The Twins left-hander fanned a career-high 15 batters Friday against Oakland, baffling Athletics hitters for eight innings. Yet one rough inning was all it took for Liriano and the Twins to come away losers by a 6-3 final despite Liriano’s dazzling, strikeout-filled performance.
After striking out eight of the first 10 batters he faced, Liriano served up a grand slam to Oakland’s Jonny Gomes in the fourth inning. While Liriano rebounded after the homer, Minnesota never recovered.
“Goodness gracious, he was throwing the living fire out of the ball. All his pitches were working,” said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. “Unfortunately, we just made a couple bad plays out there. That really hurt us tonight.”
After striking out the side in the first and third innings, Liriano allowed a leadoff hit to Jemile Weeks — which could have been ruled an error on shortstop Brian Dozier — in the fourth inning. With one out in the inning, Twins center fielder Denard Span dropped a routine fly ball that allowed Weeks to take second and Yoenis Cespedes to reach first base safely.
After the error by Span, Liriano walked Chris Carter before serving up the grand slam to Gomes on the first pitch of the at-bat.
“That’s what’s disappointing. He should have been in the dugout,” Gardenhire said. “But Frankie was there all night. He was locked in.”
Liriano said the pitch he threw to Gomes was a changeup that just hung in the zone. Gomes took advantage, tagging it 388 feet to the left field seats.
“I think I should have made a better pitch in that situation,” Liriano said. “Other than that, everything was fine. . . . After that, I said to myself, what’s done is done. There’s nothing I can do about it. Go out there and make some good pitches and give my team a chance to win the ball game.”
Liriano did just that. He didn’t allow another run through eight innings and gave up just one more hit after the Gomes grand slam, a harmless two-out double to Weeks in the fifth inning.
After finishing seven innings at the 100-pitch mark, Liriano took the mound again for the eighth inning. He picked up his 15th and final strikeout when he fanned Coco Crisp for the third time of the night. He then got Weeks and Reddick to both pop out for a perfect eighth inning and left the game with Oakland leading 4-3.
Yet Minnesota’s offense couldn’t bail Liriano out, despite a two-homer night by left fielder Josh Willingham. As dominant as Liriano was for most of the evening, the four-run fourth inning cost him.
“A phenomenal game by Frankie Liriano,” Gardenhire said. “He deserved a lot better than he got.”
The announced attendance at Friday’s game was 33,230, but that didn’t include several scouts who were also at Target Field. They could have been watching the game for numerous reasons, but there’s a good chance at least some were there to see Liriano. With the July 31 trade deadline approaching, Liriano — who will be a free agent next season — could be a trade chip for the 36-50 Twins.
Friday’s performance did nothing but help Liriano’s trade value, which has been on the rise lately after a shaky start to the 2012 season. Since being moved from the bullpen back into the rotation at the end of May, Liriano is 3-3 with a 2.82 ERA and 67 strikeouts to just 25 walks in 57-1/3 innings. Those numbers are a big step in the right direction from his first six starts this year, in which he was 0-5 with a 9.45 ERA with 21 strikeouts and 19 walks in 26-2/3 innings.
“We all know what Frankie can do. The stuff, it’s always been talked about,” Gardenhire said. “Right now, I think he’s very confident. He trusts his stuff. He’s very relaxed on the mound. I don’t think he’s letting a whole lot affect him.”
Liriano is confident, and he’s also consistent. He’s shown in the past that he has the stuff — he threw a no-hitter last season and was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA during his rookie year in 2006. Now, he’s starting to regain that form.
“I think his confidence is high right now,” said catcher Drew Butera, who was behind the plate Friday. “I think that’s the key to his success. He’s not afraid. He goes right after them. He knows his stuff is good enough to get outs. I think that’s what’s helped him a lot.”