Today is a big, big day for the Twins organization, perhaps bigger than any other day yet or later in this this spring training. The franchise is taking the hill in the Twins A-squad game against the Boston Red Sox. Taking the hill for the Red Sox will be another their young phenom, Clay Bucholz.
It will, of course, mark the first time Fransisco Liriano has pitched in a game since September of 2006.
Whatever the stat line is for him after the game, just finishing his two innings and feeling good will be the best thing the Twins could hope for. Up until this point, he's been throwing side sessions. But what happens when he puts that little extra behind his fastball on a 2-2 count?
One interesting thing to notice on Liriano thusfar is his avoidance of the slider. We've been told since he injury that the Twins will probably want him to rely less on the slider. This has led him to improve his change up since it will see more use now.
But in all his bullpen sessions so far this spring, his slider has not been useful. Joe C noted in his blog that Liriano himself admitted to holding back on the slider, rendering it "wild and ineffective." But, of course, while he can minimize it's use somewhat, Liriano's true dominance as a pitcher still comes from his unhittable slider. He's going to have to find a way to come to terms with it eventually.
If anyone recalls, this isn't the first time an important Twins lefthander has had arm surgery and then had difficulty throwing his best pitch for some time. In 2004, for all of April and May, Johan Santana's change up was terrible, and it resulted in an ERA of 5.61 in those two months. But on June 9, against, ironically, the New York Mets, he gave up only one run in seven innings of work, racking up 10 strikeouts. He would go on to give up more than two runs in a start only once for the remainder of the season. He, of course, won the Cy Young and has never looked back.
During the winter before that 2004 season, Santana had some bone chips removed from his left elbow. He admitted that he felt tentative because of the injury and was not fully extending his arm when he threw, especially on the change up. In between his starts on June 3 and June 9, he had a bullpen session with Rick Anderson who noticed and corrected this mistake. This was the key to Santana's dominance the remainder of the season.
Remember that today, whatever the result of Liriano's start is (so long as it is a healthy one). Liriano may not be back to full form for some time, even if his fastball has been clocked as high as it has ever been. It may take his some time to regain full confidence in his arm. But the Twins are willing to wait. Today, all we need to see is a nice, easy motion.
[Update 3:30pm CST] MLB.com roundup on Liriano's first start
Please, make sure not to miss Jesse's discussion below on one of my favorite Twins, Jason Kubel.