Senior Writer

No-no might give Liriano confidence to reach elusive greatness


This is part of the package.

This dominance, this brilliance, this no-hit stuff is part of the crazy good, infuriatingly inconsistent, eye-popping talent that Francisco Liriano brings with him to the mound.

One start he looks like Cy Young.

Next start, he's Cy Collapse.

The Liriano who threw a suffocating no-hitter against the disappearing White Sox in Chicago on Tuesday night unleashed a fury of killer sliders, perfectly placed four-seam fastballs, the occasional changeup and, with runners aboard (he walked six), steely nerves.

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The Liriano who took the ball to start the game was 1-4 with a 9.13 ERA. He was getting scorched to the tune of 10.3 hits per nine innings.

Tantalizingly good on Tuesday.

Yet, before that, to hitters, finger-lickin' good.

"As a pitching coach, your biggest job is to keep a pitcher's confidence up," Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson was saying in a telephone conversation about an hour after the no-hitter. "Don't let him get down on himself.

"That's what Frankie was starting to do."

Since returning from Tommy John ligament transfer surgery in 2008 after sitting out the entire '07 season, Liriano, 27, has often struggled with his confidence and wrestled with his slider. It was that devastating pitch, the torque that grinded his arm with each delivery, that led to his surgery in the first place.

So you can understand his internal battle as he fought back far enough over the following three years to be named as the American League's Comeback Player of the Year last summer for going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA:

The slider is what set him apart. Yet it's also what almost did him in.

Physically healthy but, at times, mentally wary, confidence almost always is at the root of it when Liriano struggles.

"No question," Anderson said.

Few had seen anything quite like his slider as Liriano was going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a rookie in 2006. His coming-out party that season took place in Houston on June 22, when he drew a start against Roger Clemens as Clemens made his belated '06 debut gunning for career-win No. 342.

Instead, Liriano stole the show, throwing eight solid innings and tagging the Rocket with the loss.

"God don't hit it if he throws it right," a dazzled American League scout told me of his slider the night before that game.

Those words came flowing back through the years on Monday when, sure enough, the White Sox didn't hit it.

Backed by sterling defensive plays -- notably, from third baseman Danny Valencia, shortstop Matt Tolbert and center fielder Denard Span -- and aided by what looked on replay like a phantom tag at first base by Justin Morneau, Liriano was in charge all evening.

Not only did he step into the ace role that the Twins long ago carved out for him, he at the same time became a most unlikely no-hit author. If that makes sense.

See, for all of the hosannas surrounding that slider, he had a total of zero complete games in 94 career starts entering what immediately now enters Twins' lore as his Chicago Classic.

It follows from that then, that, right: Zero career shutouts, too -- until Tuesday's 1-0 broadside on Chicago's South Side.

The miserable start this year, though, was something totally different. So in Kansas City a couple of days ago, Anderson called Liriano over for a talk.

Following Liriano's last start -- a three-inning, seven-run disaster against Tampa Bay last Wednesday -- catcher Drew Butera had relayed a key piece of intelligence to Anderson: Liriano had begged off throwing his two-seam fastball to one of the Rays' hitters because, he told Butera, "I don't want to get beat with it."

Anderson used that as a launching point for the talk with his struggling pitcher.

"What makes you comfortable?" Anderson asked.

Liriano told him.

"So let's s--- can the two-seamer," Anderson told him. "Go back to throwing your four-seamer, your slider and your changeup.

"Is that the way you like to pitch?


"Then that's how you're going to pitch."

And pitch he did. Wow.

"He was pressing so much," Anderson said. "He was overthrowing his pitches, using different arm slots on his pitches.

"The slider is his bread and butter, but he was overusing it, and muscling it."

As Liriano and the Twins sunk their teeth into this one to hang on, with closer Matt Capps heating up in the ninth, you couldn't help but recall the time last August when manager Ron Gardenhire pulled Kevin Slowey after seven no-hit innings. That, though, was different: Slowey had missed his previous start because of elbow tendinitis and had racked up 106 pitches.

"I guarantee you if you ask Gardy if that went through his mind tonight and he said no, he'd be lying," Anderson said, chuckling.

The ninth, however, passed -- though, not uneasily. After getting a ground ball to short, Liriano walked Juan Pierre, got Alexei Ramirez to pop to short but then fell behind Adam Dunn 3-0. After working the count to full, Liriano got his no-no -- on a sharp, slicing line drive to shortstop that Liriano thought for sure was a hit.

"You're excited about a no-hitter, but I'm more excited about what it does to the mental part of his game," Anderson said. "If he doesn't have confidence after that, I don't think he ever will."


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