On verge of demotion to bullpen, lefty locks down rotation spot
By Anthony Castrovince / MLB.com
First there was talk that he was headed to the Yankees.
Next there was the talk that he was destined for a demotion.
Now the talk surrounding Francisco Liriano is about this no-hitter nobody saw coming.
Finally -- and unexpectedly -- this is the kind of talk Liriano doesn't mind hearing.
The latest poster boy for the game's great unpredictability, Liriano secured his standing in the Twins' starting five by tossing the club's first no-no since Eric Milton's against the Angels in 1999.
Liriano was the definition of "effectively wild" on Tuesday night at U.S. Cellular Field, walking six and striking out just two but keeping the ball on the ground and making the surprisingly anemic White Sox offense look even more so than usual.
From the very beginning of his professional career, Liriano has flashed no-hit potential because of his pure stuff. But the pesky stipulation that no-hitters require the pitcher involved to toss all nine innings prevented him from looking like a true candidate.
After all, what transpired Tuesday was Liriano's first complete game. At any level.
So, although the no-hitter is deservedly a talking point, the bigger -- and, for the Twins, more encouraging -- development here is the turning point that might have taken place for the 27-year-old Liriano. His release-point issues, inflated ERA and penchant for perfunctory outings had him on the verge of losing his job to Kevin Slowey.
Maybe it's a turning point for the Twins, too. They certainly need one. This 1-0 victory over the rival White Sox was just their 10th in what has been a decidedly miserable 2011, with the laboring Liriano setting the tone for their shaky starting situation.
Soon, Slowey likely will join the rotation after getting stretched out in his return from shoulder issues. But it's clear now that he won't be replacing Liriano, who just dramatically lengthened his own leash and is the only member of this staff with legitimate ace-type stuff.
That stuff didn't prevent the Twins from considering trade possibilities involving Liriano before the season. Though the trigger was not pulled, the deliberation was telling, in and of itself. Liriano was coming off the first season in which he truly lived up to his potential, going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 31 starts. Furthermore, the Twins knew they had contractual control of the left-hander for another two seasons.
So for the Twins to even consider moving him at that juncture was an indication that they weren't necessarily sold on his long-term staying power. And to the organization that moved Johan Santana a year ahead of his free-agent eligibility, the notion of trading an ace before he hits his payday was not a new one.
But Liriano hung around. And unfortunately, in the early going, he made it appear as though the Twins might have missed an opportunity to sell high.
How bad was it for Liriano before Tuesday night? He was letting nearly two baserunners onboard per inning pitched. His strikeout and walk rates were identical, at 6.85 per nine innings -- the strikeout rate a career-low, and the walk rate the highest among all Major League starters. His ballpark-adjusted ERA+ was 44, or 56 points below what is considered "average." He had had only one start that went longer than five innings.
Were the Twins serious about demoting their supposed ace to make room for Slowey? Well, now we'll never know for sure. But if the public discussion about that possibility was used as a means to get into Liriano's head, then we can safely say the mission was accomplished.
"I feel so happy right now," Liriano said afterward. "I can't explain my feeling."
Don't worry, Francisco. Nobody can. This was a stunner, and certainly another indication that the "Year of the Pitcher," as 2010 was so often referred, lives on, in some fashion.
But let's be clear: This was no neat-and-tidy no-no. The walks, the bitter cold and the fact that the White Sox went in hitting .239 as a team prevent us from calling this a traditional masterpiece of a performance.
The Twins, though, didn't need a masterpiece. They just needed their ace back. And the latest talk is that they found him.