MINNEAPOLIS -- The Oakland Athletics were swinging and missing, and Francisco Liriano kept on firing those fastballs, sliders and changeups in the strike zone that has eluded him so often this year and last.
For one afternoon, the Minnesota Twins enjoyed that All-Star-like pitching performance they've been longing for.
Liriano's return to the rotation was a rousing success, with six shutout innings by the vexing left-hander Wednesday to lead the Twins to a 4-0 victory over the Athletics, their eighth straight loss.
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"I told myself before the game, the season starts for me today. So everything that happened previously, I had to put it behind me and move forward," said Liriano (1-5), who retired the last 11 batters he faced in a game that lasted only 2 hours, 16 minutes.
He struck out nine, the most this season by any Twins pitcher. He allowed only two walks with a double and two singles against the worst-hitting team in the majors, batting a brutal .210.
"The big thing for me: He kept his composure," catcher Drew Butera said, adding: "He has an electric fastball, and obviously you know about that slider. When he's got his stuff, when he's throwing strikes, he's a true ace."
Josh Willingham had an RBI single and a two-run homer, roughly 15 hours after his three-run shot in the ninth gave the Twins a dramatic win the night before. This was their first sweep of both a home series and a three-game set this season.
Tyson Ross (2-6) lasted only five innings for the A's, who are batting .172 during the eight-game skid. Ten times in that stretch, they've scored two runs or fewer. A's manager Bob Melvin said he's as frustrated as ever.
"Before this stretch that we're on right now, we've been a team that's been really scrappy and that's how we were finding our identity with that, that's who we believed we were," Melvin said. "These losing streaks can take on a life of their own, and they're not going to just end because they're going to end. We have to take ownership in it."
That's what the Twins needed Liriano to do for the sake of his careening career, which despite a stellar rookie year in 2006 and a solid season in 2010 has been mostly marked by injury and inconsistency.
"We need him in the rotation. I think the story's been told too many times about how good his stuff is. He's got to go out on the field and get it done, and today was a good start. We'll work from there," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
Liriano's first six starts were so bad he was put in the bullpen to fix his mind and his mechanics, and his last relief appearance Friday was rough, too - five hits, four runs and two walks in 2 2/3 innings.
The Twins had little choice but to put him back as a starter. Triple-A call-ups Scott Diamond and P.J. Walters have helped stabilize the situation, but the rotation has by far the highest collective ERA in the majors.
"Even when I was struggling, I didn't lose my confidence at all. I knew that I was making a lot of mistakes," Liriano said.
Against the A's Liriano offered some hope -- or, perhaps more relevantly, summer trade value. Pitching coach Rick Anderson paid him a visit on the mound after he threw three straight balls to Jonny Gomes in the third inning, but Liriano got back to business and struck the designated hitter out.
"It baffles me how the heck that guy's been struggling," Gomes said.
Ross has lost six of his last seven starts with a 7.34 ERA over that span, and he has the highest opponent batting average in baseball for a minimum of 40 innings at .337.
The right-hander was in trouble right away with a leadoff double by Denard Span. Joe Mauer walked, and Willingham followed with a sharp single. Brian Dozier drove in another run with a single of his own.
After Mauer walked for the third time, in the fifth inning, Willingham hit a no-doubter to the back of the second deck above left field for his 10th home run this year.
The Twins finished 12-16 in May, but that's better than 6-16 in April.
"It's a good feeling, a really good feeling. I hope we get to experience it more," Willingham said.
- Melvin said OF Yoenis Cespedes will likely join the team Friday in Kansas City. LF Collin Cowgill, however, would be a "difficult send-down," he said. Cowgill has reached base in 11 of his last 17 plate appearances.
- Willingham has hit seven of his 10 home runs at Target Field this year.
- Both teams are off Thursday. Right-hander Carl Pavano (2-4, 5.46 ERA) pitches for the Twins on Friday in Cleveland against Indians righty Derek Lowe (6-3, 3.25) to start a three-game series. The A's send RH Bartolo Colon (4-5, 4.52) to the mound Friday against RH Felipe Paulino (2-1, 2.03) of the Royals.