Francisco Liriano Defies Personal Odds By Pulling Twins Back Up to .500

Dan WadeSenior Analyst IJune 24, 2009

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - APRIL 6: Francisco Liriano #47 of the Minnesota Twins pitches against the Seattle Mariners on Opening Day at the Metrodome on April 6, 2009 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)

Tuesday night's game had all the makings of a shootout for the first five frames of the game. After that, not a runner crossed home plate. This was a rather shocking development, given that the Twins' starter, Francisco Liriano, is not one who gets better as the game goes on.

Liriano seems to do much better when the element of surprise is on his side. The first time he faces a lineup, hitters manage a line of just .183, .252, and .556 off of him, while striking out 35 times compared to just eight walks.

The second time a hitter sees Liriano, the advantage switches dramatically. Hitters own a .346, .440, and 1.057 line in their second PA, and have drawn 17 walks while whiffing just 18 times. Their OPS+ jumps from a poor 34 to a robust 151.

Translation: The first time through the order, Liriano sees nine iterations of Nick Punto. After that, it's nine Justin Uptons coming to the dish.

In plate appearances past the second, the line drops a little bit, down to .325, .397, and .922, which is still a clear hitter's line.

Pitches 51-75 seem to be his undoing, a plateau Liriano reached in the second and third innings of Tuesday's game. While he settled down after his rough first two innings, he never truly settled in. A total of 12 base runners reached in his five innings of work. Meanwhile, just three crossed the plate, and it clearly took its toll on Liriano.

It took him 117 pitches to get through five innings. By comparison, in Nick Blackburn's complete game win over the Pirates last week, he needed just 107 to make it all the way through.

The Brewers certainly had their chance to take the series opener. They got to Liriano early and kept the pressure on, which is exactly how teams beat the Twins' most enigmatic starter.

Looking ahead, the Twins are in excellent position to sweep their season series with the Brewers. They hold a 4-0 advantage heading into Wednesday's game.

Nick Blackburn starts Wednesday, riding a string of six straight quality starts. Over that span, he has dropped his ERA by over 1.3 runs and is now boasting an ERA+ of 133, just a tic worse than Justin Verlander's mark of 136.

Blackburn's strategy of working in and around the zone, while limiting mistakes and forcing his defense to make plays behind him should work well against a Brewers' lineup that thrives on making mistake pitches travel very far in the air, frequently over walls.

Thursday's starter, Scott Baker, started the season 0-4, but has won four of his last six decisions to creep back towards respectability. His four straight quality starts indicate that he is steadily getting back to his 2008 form after an injury wrecked havoc with his condition to begin the season.

Baker's ERA this month is just 3.18, a far cry from the 4.97 he had last month or the 9.82 he began with. Not to mention his home-run rate has dropped from a high of two earlier this season to a more reasonable 1.7.

That has been the key to Baker's success. His WHIP of 1.12 is fifth best in the AL, but while many of those hits are home runs, it tends to inflate the ERA disproportionally. If Baker can keep the Brewers in the park, he'll have a very good chance to pick up the win.

Even though the pitching match-ups seem favorable, it is difficult to predict a sweep. The Brewers are a capable offensive team and the Twins' bats have a terrible tendency to disappear in at least one game of a three-game set.

A sweep could be exactly what the Twins need to get themselves going. They have been over .500 just twice this season and have yet to be more than one game over. A sweep would put them two games over .500 as they head into Busch Stadium for their weekend series.

What is wrong with this team is the subject of a future post and possibly a book, because the answer isn't short. What we have seen in the past is that a single catalyzing event can almost compel the team to success in the short term and help management see who isn't contributing in the long term.

A season sweep of their regional rivals could be exactly what this team needs to finally get going.