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03/28/08 6:35 PM ET

Liriano won't break camp with Twins

Team hopes to build left-hander up in two Minor League starts

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Francisco Liriano feels like he's ready to start the season in the Twins' rotation.

The Twins prefer to give the left-hander a little bit more time.

Liriano will make at least two Minor League starts before he joins the club's rotation, manager Ron Gardenhire announced after the Twins played the Pirates on Friday.

The Twins optioned Liriano to Class A Fort Myers after the game, meaning right-hander Nick Blackburn will take the final spot in the pitching rotation for the start of the season.

Liriano will make his next start Thursday in the Miracle's season opener at Hammond Stadium in Fort Myers. It's a move that will actually fit well into Liriano's schedule, as his wife Johanna, who is pregnant, is set to have labor induced Friday in Miami.

The left-hander will then join Triple-A Rochester five days after his first outing for a start in Norfolk, Va. After that start, he's expected to rejoin the Twins.

"Yes, he could probably go with us [now] and do as good as a lot of pitchers in this league," Gardenhire said. "But another start or two is the right thing. We'll get his pitch count up there close to 100 pitches in a couple starts, and we're going to do everything that's right for him."

"After those two games, we'll see exactly [where he's at]. He should be up to 100 pitches and then we'll bring him with us."

The decision came moments after Liriano made his final spring start against the Pirates. He pitched five innings against Pittsburgh, giving up one run on three hits. The left-hander threw around 74 pitches, striking out seven and walking two. His lone run allowed came on a solo home run to left field by third baseman Jose Bautista.

It was a start that Liriano deemed his "best" of the spring.

Early in camp, Liriano said he tried to take it easy on the mound -- unsure of just how he would feel. The pitch he was most tentative with was his slider, but he said that's improved with each start.

"I wasn't scared at all to throw my slider as hard as I can [Friday]," Liriano said. "So I feel pretty good about it."

Liriano's command improved as his latest outing progressed. He looked a tad shaky in the first inning, which included a four-pitch walk to the second batter he faced. But after a 21-pitch second inning, Liriano didn't throw more than 13 pitches in each of his next three innings. During that time, he appeared as if he was starting to really lock in, as he threw most of his pitches for strikes.

And it was the seven strikeouts he recorded on the day that had Liriano feeling more like he did during his All-Star rookie season in 2006.

"It tells me something -- that all of my pitches are back to the way they were before," Liriano said. "I feel great."

Liriano had not been informed of the decision to start him in the Minors when reporters talked to him after his start. But he said he was fine with whatever the team had planned for him.

"I think I'm ready to start in Minnesota," Liriano said. "If they want me to start [in Fort Myers], I will start here. If they feel it's better for me, I don't mind starting here."

While Liriano's latest start was another step in his progress, the club felt that a few additional starts will help the pitcher who arrived late to camp due to visa troubles and is just 16 months removed from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow. In five starts for the Twins this spring, Liriano posted a 4.02 ERA and allowed 14 hits with nine walks and 15 strikeouts.

"He probably feels he can pitch with us, but he also understands that it's not going to hurt him to get another two outings and go from there," Gardenhire said. "We've seen him misfiring a little bit here, and the location on his fastball is still not as good."

The Twins have wanted Liriano to focus more on his fastball and his changeup rather than rely on his slider, the pitch which many blamed for his elbow problems. Liriano relied heavily on the pitch during his first season. The hope is that he'll use it more as an out pitch in the future.

"If he would get out of whack a little bit, he could throw his slider over better than he could his fastball," Gardenhire said. "We want to get him to kind of alter that. We like his fastball a lot. I think if he uses the fastball a little bit more, he's going to be a better pitcher."

The decision not to break camp with Liriano leaves the team without its most electrifying pitcher. But the Twins know that a little bit of extra time can only help Liriano improve upon what he did Friday.

"It's very exciting to tell you the truth to see him go out and throw like he did today," Gardenhire said. "At times, you saw him spinning off some balls and the ball was flying all over the place. But you also saw some really, really good stuff."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.