Francisco Liriano’s nickname as a rookie for Minnesota was “The Franchise,” reflecting his immediate success in 2006 before his elbow began to hurt. Four years later, the fortunes of the Twins could still be strongly tied to Liriano’s left arm.
Liriano threw seven shutout innings, and the Twins took the first series at Target Field with an 8-0 victory over the sloppy Boston Red Sox on Thursday.
While going 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA last year, Liriano gave up at least one run in each of his 24 starts. Boston was averaging more than five runs a game this season.
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“That’s our wild card. I feel like we’ll be as strong as he is,” said Nick Punto, who had three of Minnesota’s 15 hits.
Every Twins starter had a hit except batting champ Joe Mauer. Denard Span turned two of Tim Wakefield’s knuckleballs into RBI doubles, and Michael Cuddyer homered and drove in three runs.
The Twins have won their first three series of the season, the first time that’s happened since 1987, the year of their first World Series championship.
“These guys believe in themselves, and they’re trying to go out and prove it on the field,” manager Ron Gardenhire.
Including Liriano (1-0), who has struggled to find his confidence as much as his control and his velocity since needing Tommy John surgery after that unforgettable 2006 season. He threw well in Dominican winter ball, kept it up in spring training and despite a so-so performance in his first start has a 2.08 ERA out of the gate. Against the Red Sox, he scattered four hits and struck out eight.
“He was really good,” said Boston’s Bill Hall, who drew the only two walks against Liriano. “He should be really proud of himself. He’s definitely got his old stuff back.”
Liriano thought so, too.
“I haven’t felt like that since probably ’06,” he said.
With help from the calming influence of his catcher, Mauer, Liriano worked out of one-out, two-on trouble in the first two frames. Then he reached back for one of those trademark sliders to strike out Jeremy Hermida and end the seventh with one on.
“We’ve seen that before,” Gardenhire said. “You always hope you’re going to get a pitcher back after a major surgery like that. He’s still got a ways to go, but his stuff is there. There’s no doubt about it.”
Perhaps most encouraging for the Twins was Liriano’s trust in his fastball against the patient Red Sox and the quick pace of his outing, resulting in a 2-hour, 38-minute game. He wasn’t overly reliant on that trusty slider.
“My arm feels better. I just have my confidence back,” Liriano said.
Wakefield (0-1) is 14-6 lifetime against the Twins, including a 7-4 mark at the Metrodome, where the float on his knuckler often proved more baffling than usual. He didn’t fool very many batters in this one, giving up 10 hits and six runs in 5 1-3 innings.
“It has nothing to do with being outside or inside. I just didn’t have good stuff,” Wakefield said.
It was that kind of afternoon for the Red Sox, who left a total of five runners in scoring position and made three errors in the field – plus another flub that led to a Twins run in the sixth.
“We didn’t help him all that much,” manager Terry Francona said. “He gave up a lot of hits. We just didn’t stop the bleeding.”
J.J. Hardy reached on a bad throw by third baseman Adrian Beltre, and Span followed Punto’s single with a double – and possible triple – into the corner in right.
Punto slipped trying to stop at third, but Span’s head was down rounding second. Catcher Victor Martinez’s throw wasn’t in time to get Span retreating, while Punto came home anyway and Francona came to the mound to give Wakefield the hook.
“It was a really ugly game,” Wakefield said, “and it started with me on the mound.”
NOTES: Twins RH Pat Neshek, who threw two scoreless relief innings in Wednesday’s game, has a sore flexor tendon in the middle finger of his throwing hand and isn’t sure about his availability for the weekend. … Mike Lowell was the DH for Boston in place of slumping David Ortiz, but Francona said that was because of the matchup with Liriano. … Rookie Drew Butera will back up Mauer indefinitely. Gardenhire said there’s no rush to bring Jose Morales back after right wrist surgery and that Morales must prove he can throw runners out, even when healthy. … The Red Sox came into the game tied for second in the league in fewest errors, with two. The Twins have committed only one in 10 games.