Well, that was unexpected.
Off to a terrible start to his 2011 season, and with his back against the wall and his job rumored to be on the line, Francisco Liriano responded last night by throwing the first no-hitter of the 2011 season.
One of baseballs best pitchers during the 2010 season, I had fully expected Liriano to take yet another step forward in the eyes of fans around the country this year. Instead, he arrived to spring training reportedly not having followed his off season conditioning program, and has been a mess since spring training. His velocity was down, he wasn't missing bats like he has throughout his career and his sometimes spotty command had deteriorated to the level of abysmal.
He entered the contest with a 9.13 ERA that didn't feel at all undeserved. In 23.2 innings of work he had walked as many (18) as he had struck out. Opponents were hitting .281 with a .897 OPS against him. In short, he was turning opposing lineups into all-stars. It has been quite the turnaround for someone who had been so dominant just one year earlier.
For their part the Twins who had done as much as could be expected in terms of standing by their mercurial ace. Having collapsed into an early season 9-18 start, the coaching staff has worked tirelessly to help him regain his command and confidence to little avail. And so with the season in dire straits early, they made the decision to leave starter-turned-reliever Kevin Slowey in the Minors for one more start as he rehabbed to get stretched out in order to replace the struggling Liriano.
I think it's safe to say that Liriano has pushed back that timetable by at least one more start.
Certainly the Twins and Liriano hope that last nights start, which was not only Liriano's first no-hitter, but his first complete game, can be a rallying point for both him and his team, which was desperately in need of something positive.
The reality is probably less rosy however. Despite throwing a no hitter, it was easily one of the least impressive of all time. Liriano, once an elite strikeout pitcher struck out just two - he walked six. His fastball velocity averaged just 92.5 mph, still down nearly a full mph from last year and he threw it for strikes on just 48% of the time, frequently missing badly. His slider lacks much of it's previous bite and his release point remains a mess.
The Twins staff is trying to simplify things for Liriano in hopes of getting him straightened out. Over the years one of Liriano greatest weapons has been his two-seam fastball. A pitch with fantastic arm side run, that gets good depth and induces ground balls in droves. This season however he simply hasn't been able to throw it for strikes, so for this start, pitching coach Rick Anderson had him drop it in favor of his four seamer, a pitch he's thrown with far less regularity for his career.
Still, Liriano's raw stuff remains as impressive as anyones. While his velocity is down somewhat, it's not that drastic of a fall off and his pitches still dive, dart, and cut as hard as anyone in the game. Ultimately his success this season will be determined by his ability to throw strikes at a high rate, and for now at least, that isn't anywhere close to happening.
It's safe to say that Twins fans everywhere hope that this game was a harbinger of things to come, but I have a feeling it's simply a talented pitcher pushing back what seems like an inevitable demotion to a bullpen role.