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Liriano steadily returning to form

Francisco Liriano is not here to be a savior. He, alone, is not going to grab the Twins by the scruff of their scrappy little necks and drag them into the postseason. Not by himself, he isn't.

Oh, he can make a difference here and there. And when it gets down to a crunch-time game in September, he'd be a good choice to have on the mound. Granted, he's not the Liriano we saw in 2006. He won't blow hitters away like he did back then, sending them slinking to the dugout shaking their heads and muttering under their breath.

But this Liriano, steadily working his way back from Tommy John surgery, is still pretty good. He's still plenty effective. Can he win a few important ballgames between now and October? Can he do his part to help the Twins -- who are pretty good in their own right -- into the playoffs?

Liriano definitely can do that.

"He's got the desire," agrees former pitching great Jack Morris, who serves now as one of the team's radio broadcasters and who knows a bit about desire in crunch time himself, "and that hasn't changed whether his arm is healthy or not."

Back in spring training, when I talked to a rehabbing Liriano in Florida, the word then was the success of the Twins depended largely on his healthy left arm. But like a lot of young players returning from major surgery, Liriano wasn't all the way healed. He gave up 15 hits in his first three starts in April, in 10 1/3 innings. He walked 13. He lasted only two-thirds of an inning in his final April outing. So the Twins, 10-12 at that point, shipped him down to the minors to fix a few things.

Mainly, his head needed fixing. Evidently, learning to throw a baseball again in a competitive situation, when someone has torn out a part of your elbow and replaced it with something else, isn't quite as easy as it sounds. "I wasn't ready when I was here," Liriano admitted last week. "So I had to go down and get myself ready."

While Liriano, still only 24, was learning in the minors to trust his elbow again, a lot was happening with the big club. The Twins' young and untested rotation, without Johan Santana (traded in the offseason to the Mets) and Matt Garza (traded to the Rays), has proven to be better than just about anyone could have predicted. Their young lineup, without Torii Hunter (who signed with the Angels last winter), actually has improved.

As a result, the Twins are now closer to the lead in the American League Central -- a half-game behind the White Sox before Friday's games -- than almost anyone could have imagined. A lot of people around the Twins would have to admit that this team is pushing even the most optimistic of expectations. "I think," says Morris, "the majority of the people in the organization are delighted with our season right now."

Liriano could be the one to help them over the ecstatic edge. Last week, the Twins made the long-awaited move of pulling struggling veteran Livan Hernandez from the rotation, designating him for assignment, and calling up Liriano, who finally had begun to terrorize Class AAA hitters. Liriano made 19 starts with the Rochester Red Wings, going 10-2 with a 3.28 ERA. But it was his last several starts that had really impressed. In his final 11 games with the Red Wings, he was 10-0 with a 2.67 ERA. In one five-start stretch covering 35 innings, he was 5-0 with an 0.26 ERA.

On Sunday, Liriano pitched in the big leagues for the first time since late April, went six innings, gave up three hits against the Indians without allowing a run, struck out five and won. He wasn't the old Liriano, who went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA as a rookie in 2006, striking out 144 in 121 innings before his elbow betrayed him. Morris says Liriano's fastball last weekend was at least 4-5 mph off the low- to mid-90s pitch he threw in '06. His slider, the killer pitch in '06, was not nearly as biting, either. His control wasn't all there. He walked three.

Against a reeling Cleveland team, though, he was plenty good enough. "He pitched OK," Morris says. "I think he's still quite a ways away. But as long as he gets ahead of batters and pounds the ball inside, he'll be fine."

The Twins' rotation, statistically speaking, is a below-average unit in the AL. It is painfully young -- none of the starters are over 27 -- and a lot of people wonder whether the kids will be up to the pressures of a September pennant race. But of the Twins' four starters not named Liriano -- righties Nick Blackburn, Scott Baker, Kevin Slowey and lefty Glen Perkins -- Slowey is the only one with a losing record (7-8). And the Minnesota starters, overall, are 44-37, the best record by a rotation in a very disappointing AL Central.

There's the question, too, of whether Liriano is up to the challenge. He's been brought back slowly since undergoing the surgery in November of 2006, so he should be rested. And he has some limited September experience. But he already has about 140 innings on that new elbow this year, counting his time in the minors. How much more does he have? "Every one of them is in uncharted waters," Morris says of the Twins' starters.

The point here is that Liriano, as he's already shown, doesn't have to be the '06 Liriano, and he doesn't have to worry about going seven innings every time out. All he has to do is what he did last Sunday against the Indians, and what the rest of the rotation has been doing all year. All he has to do is give the Twins a chance.

It's a chance that, back in April, few would have figured either Liriano or the Twins would get.

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