Sunday start should test Liriano
Twins curious to see whether left-hander's elbow is truly ready
JUPITER, Fla. -- Only two spring starts remain for left-hander Francisco Liriano, but his outing Sunday will likely be the most critical in determining whether he breaks camp as a member of the Twins rotation."I think [Sunday] is going to tell us about what we need to do," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said Saturday. "It should. We'll just have to see how he does." The start will be Liriano's fourth of the spring. So far, the pitcher, who is 15 months removed from Tommy John ligament replacement surgery on his left elbow, has yet to demonstrate to the team that he can let loose with all of his pitches and still have command of them. But there apparently is another reason that the team has been hesitant to declare Liriano ready. It's due to the team having some concern whether he's being completely honest about his current health status -- despite numerous declarations that his arm feels great. "Our concern with him is that our communication sometimes has been a little out of whack," Gardenhire said. "We want to make sure that he's really feeling good. I know he tells us he is, but we want to make sure." The communication problems between the two sides began before the pitcher was shut down with his elbow problems during the 2006 season. Liriano repeatedly told the Twins that he wasn't feeling anything in his elbow and he was fine to continue pitching. The team even had pitcher Johan Santana speak to Liriano to make sure that the language barrier wasn't getting in the way of the pitcher's message. But Santana reported back that Liriano said he was doing just fine. That message changed after the pitcher was officially shut down for the year. Liriano told reporters that his elbow was hurting the entire time. The Twins hoped Liriano, 24, might have learned his lesson about being honest during his long tedious recovery. But so far that hasn't exactly been the case. On Saturday, Gardenhire recalled an incident that took place during the Twins Instructional League this past fall. He and pitching coach Rick Anderson were on hand in Fort Myers, Fla., to watch Liriano finish up his rehabilitation program and pitch off a mound. Although the pitcher had been officially released from the program by team doctors, there was 10 days left of Instructional League. Gardenhire and Anderson spoke with Liriano and expressed their desire for him to finish out the time there -- completing a few more bullpen sessions and undergoing a final re-evaluation. And after a short talk with the pitcher, Gardenhire said it had appeared as if Liriano would stay. Only it didn't happen.
"He said, 'OK, I'll stay. I'll do it," Gardenhire said. "The next morning, he had his locker packed and was out the door. His bag was gone and he was gone without saying anything to anybody -- the trainers, not a thank you, not anything."It's not that he had done anything wrong. He had done all of his work, but he was still 10 days away from their projected date. And he told us on the mound, 'I will stay and do this.' Then he was gone. That makes me leery." Gardenhire expressed that his feelings haven't changed on the pitcher throughout this spring. Following Liriano's late arrival to camp due to visa troubles, Gardenhire said he hasn't had enough time to determine whether Liriano has indeed learned to be honest with the team. "I'm sure he's learned, but can I guarantee that? No, I haven't had enough there yet," Gardenhire said. "So I'm still leery when he's throwing. I'm asking Andy, 'Is he letting that ball go?' you know, when he says, 'I feel great.' That's why we are leery and want to wait and see." The Twins have already said they are making subsequent plans should Liriano not show that he's indeed ready. Right-hander Nick Blackburn, who pitched two scoreless innings Saturday, is getting a start this week and the team will try to extend his pitch count to 60-70 pitches in that outing, likely Thursday. That would allow at least one other option to take over Liriano's spot should he start the season in the Minor Leagues. That wouldn't necessarily mean a long delay in Liriano's arrival. Gardenhire said he has already checked the schedules of some Minor League affiliates should the left-hander need a bit of extra time. "If you have to do something where you give him an extra start or two, we could do that," Gardenhire said. "But we have to make sure that he's ready to do these things, because once that season starts, it's not, 'Go and see how he does and we can take him out after two-three innings.' There is a little more at stake than that -- with him and the team." So the mission for Liriano from the coaching staff is pretty simple. "Be accountable for your own actions," Gardenhire said. "Just be accountable, that's what we want him to be, accountable to himself and accountable to us. He has to prove himself to us."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.