TAMPA, Fla. -- Francisco Liriano's slider has always been the pitch that drove fear into opposing hitters.

But that might be changing. Literally.

Since undergoing Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in November 2006, Liriano has been unable to duplicate the hard, nasty slider that was nearly unhittable in his rookie season.

So without that infamous pitch last season -- his first year back on the mound following surgery -- Liriano shifted his focus toward improving his changeup.

And now the Twins' coaching staff feels that Liriano's changeup could wind up being his go-to pitch.

"He's got a filthy one, and I don't doubt it being close to a very good 'out pitch' for him right now," manager Ron Gardenhire said before Liriano's first spring start on Saturday . "That's how good it is."

But just how good is it?

For a better comparison, Gardenhire was asked if Liriano's changeup compares to that of former Twins ace Johan Santana, who is considered to have one of the best in the game, and the Twins skipper didn't hesitate to put it in a similar category.

"It's pretty good. It's really good, matter of fact," Gardenhire said. "I stood behind the cage when he was throwing his [batting-practice] session. It's really good. I can tell you that right now."

Liriano didn't show much dominance with that changeup in his first outing of the spring on Saturday. In a start against the Yankees, Liriano showed a bit of rust, as he gave up three runs -- two earned -- on four hits and one walk.

"It's the first game," Liriano said after his outing. "I missed a couple pitches. I was just trying to go inside, and they stayed up a little bit. But this is the first game, so ..."

The results may have been lacking a little in Liriano's first start, but the Twins believe there is reason to be excited about the left-hander's second year back from Tommy John surgery. It's the season that's considered to be the most telling for a pitcher.


"Back in '02 and '03, the changeup was my best pitch. When I learned how to throw my slider, I stopped throwing it. Now I've just got to keep throwing it more to get the rhythm."
-- Francisco Liriano

Despite an up-and-down 2008, Liriano is coming off a strong finish to his season for Minnesota. He went 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA in 11 starts after returning to the rotation on Aug. 1.

At that time, Liriano was just starting to feature his changeup more prominently. He said he began using the pitch more during his nearly four-month stint at Triple-A Rochester last year, and he wasn't surprised that it started becoming a very successful pitch.

"Back in '02 and '03, the changeup was my best pitch," Liriano said, referencing to his time in the Giants' Minor League system. "When I learned how to throw my slider, I stopped throwing it. Now I've just got to keep throwing it more to get the rhythm."

Prior to his elbow surgery, Liriano was essentially a two-pitch starter. Although he mixed in his changeup occasionally, Liriano primarily threw fastballs and sliders in his outings.

But having regained confidence in his changeup, Liriano now has the look of a different pitcher.

"It's made him really a three-pitch pitcher rather than just fastball-slider," Gardenhire said of the changeup. "And we all know it was a lot more sliders than fastballs."

This spring, Liriano's focus will be more on his fastball and trying to locate the pitch with more consistency -- something that was a problem for him at times last season.

Although Liriano said he worked on spotting his fastball during 11 innings of winter ball in the Dominican Republic this offseason, it was the fastball that gave him the most trouble on Saturday.

"Every time he tried to come in with a fastball, it was coming right back to the middle," Gardenhire said. "He wasn't getting it in there where he wanted to."

Liriano's focus early this spring will be on his fastball and changeup, but that doesn't mean he will abandon his slider entirely.

While Liriano throws the slider at a lower speed now and it doesn't have quite the same bite it did before the surgery, the Twins believe that it can still be a very effective pitch for the southpaw. That is, Gardenhire said, if Liriano works on keeping his arm at the right angle.

"His slider is not as good as it was, but it still has a chance to get there," Gardenhire said. "When he gets down on the side of it, it does nothing. When he stays up on top with his hand, it does everything. That's a mechanical thing. When you get into mechanics with Frankie, it's a little touch and go, because he is the slinger out there. But when he stays on top of the ball with his slider, it's filthy."