Twins' Liriano appears to be returning to form
In Twins left-hander Francisco Liriano's first 10 starts of the year, he failed to pitch into the seventh inning all 10 times. That streak ended Wednesday, as Liriano went 6 2/3 innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates, allowing just one run in Minnesota's 2-1 win at PNC Park.
While his start snapped a streak of consecutive starts of six innings or less, Wednesday's outing continued a trend that has occurred since he rejoined the Twins' rotation on May 30. In his last five starts, Liriano has allowed one run or fewer in three of them. His ERA in those five games is 2.67 (nine runs in 30 1/3 innings) after one earned run Wednesday.
In his last five starts, Liriano has struck out 35 batters, including six Pirates hitters on Wednesday. Conversely, he's issued just 12 walks in that stretch. Before his demotion to the bullpen in early May, Liriano was walking nearly as many hitters (19) and he was striking out (21).
"This is kind of what we saw out of spring training, pounding the strike zone with all of his pitches," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said of Liriano's recent resurgence. "A really good fastball in and out, and setting his other pitches up with a fastball. He was able to pound them in there, and when they're trying to cheat on a fastball, he's throwing that slider and changeup and keeping them off balance.
"I've been happy with him since he's come back in the rotation. I think he's attacked and I think he's really worked at it. I think he's going to be a big influence on our baseball team. Throwing the ball like that, he can give us a lot of confidence."
Liriano was bailed out by his defense in the bottom of the seventh inning as the Twins held a 1-0 lead. After Liriano walked catcher Michael McKenry — who was batting just .175 before Wednesday — to load the bases, he faced Rod Barajas with one out. Barajas lined one to left-center field, and Twins center fielder Denard Span sprinted and made a tumbling catch for the out. A run scored on the sacrifice, but the catch by Span saved at least one run, possibly two, for Liriano and Minnesota.
"That was a great play," Gardenhire said of Span's catch. "He was tracking that ball the whole way, whether it was going to be able to get to the ground or not. It was kind of hooking away from him, too. That was a hell of a play. He covered a lot of ground."
That was the last batter Liriano faced, as Jared Burton came in to record the last out of the inning. That left Liriano with just one earned run allowed in 6 2/3 innings. He left with the game in a 1-1 tie, meaning he did not earn the decision Wednesday and remained at 1-7 on the season.
In his five games back since returning from the bullpen, Liriano hasn't gotten much run support. The Twins have scored just 11 runs in those five games, including two Wednesday. But with the way Liriano was dealing against the Pirates, two runs proved to be enough.
"He's backed it up with about three good starts in a row," said Minnesota left fielder Josh Willingham, whose solo home run in the eighth inning proved to be the game-winner. "We just haven't been able to score many runs for him and get him a win. He did a great job tonight."
Liriano finished the game with 97 pitches, 60 of which he threw for strikes. Since being inserted back into the rotation, Liriano has thrown a higher number of his pitches for strikes.
"He was attacking. I think you saw his pitch count go up really good," Gardenhire said. "He got deep into the game. He looked like he might have gotten a little tired. … He hadn't been out into the seventh like that in a while. But he made enough pitches."
Robby Incmikoski contributed to this report.
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