Before Sunday's game, the Twins' former All-Star was one bad start away from being moved to the bullpen, ostensibly in favor of undeserving demotee Anthony Swarzak.
Whether Francisco Liriano knew his starter status was in peril or not is unclear, irrespective, he pitched like a man desperate to keep his job. He no-hit the Cardinals for the first four innings of the game, and the six men who reached base against him in his seven innings of work were the second fewest he's allowed this season.
After three simply awful starts to end the month of May and lukewarm results to start June, the fact that Liriano's job was on the line was not surprising. He's silenced the wolves for the moment, but what made Sunday's outing so much more effective than his past few starts?
Liriano utilized the bottom quartile of the strike zone and below more completely than before, using his changeup low in the zone to set up the slider low and away much more convincingly than in his prior starts.
This mixing of pitches is absolutely critical for Liriano's success. His changeup is still the pitch he is least comfortable with, as evidenced by the fact that he was throwing a secondary slider with much less break early in the season as his setup pitch.
Intentionally throwing a weaker slider is basically the definition of a bad idea, and the elimination of that pitch has yielded the greatest number of consecutive home run-free innings for Liriano all season.
He still relies heavily on his off-speed pitches when he gets tired or gets in trouble. He threw just six fastballs out of 25 pitches in his final inning of work, but he's working the change into that mentality, which keeps hitters from sitting on the slider and forcing him into the zone with it.
By mixing his pitches lower in the zone, Liriano got back what made him successful in the first place: Groundball outs.
For a pitcher that has given up plenty of home runs, keeping the ball on the dirt is a pretty good strategy for limiting damage. Sure, the odd seeing-eye single might sneak through, but if that results in the hitter crossing home plate on the same play, chances are good that the run will be unearned.
Liriano needed just three flyball outs against the Cards and gave up no home runs. A day after taking Kevin Slowey deep twice, Albert Pujols was kept solidly on terra firma. Liriano got him to ground out in the first, walked him in the third (ending his perfect game), and struck Pujols out in the sixth.
In 2006, when Liriano was the unhittable phenom the Twins are hoping lurks somewhere inside him still, he was getting a GB/FB rate of 1.29. His rate this season has been 0.71, and given that nearly 10 percent of his flyballs have turned into home runs, the steady decline in both those rates is an encouraging development.
Another factor that has made Liriano more successful as the weather has warmed is his increased velocity.
In his first start of the season, Liriano's fastball averaged 91.8 MPH and his slider sat at 85 MPH. May 20th, Liriano's worst outing of the year, saw his fastball sit at the same 91.8 MPH and his slider improve marginally to 85.6 MPH.
Sunday, Liriano's fastball was at 92.4 MPH consistently with a peak of 95 MPH; his slider hovered around 87.35 MPH with a peak over 90 MPH. Not only was his velocity up on his slider, but he was also getting almost an extra inch of horizontal break.
That increased velocity across the board and better bite on an already good slider, combined with better location, yielded positive results.
Liriano may never regain 2006 form; in fact, it is very unlikely that he will. However, if he can consistently deliver performances like the one he gave on Sunday, the Twins will no longer have to worry about pushing their former ace into the bullpen.