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Liriano fans 11 to prevail in pitchers' duel

Liriano fans 11 to prevail in pitchers' duel

MINNEAPOLIS -- Four years ago, during his phenomenal rookie season, Francisco Liriano delivered a series of memorable starts in Interleague Play.

It included the rookie outdueling Roger Clemens in an outing in Houston, and holding the Brewers scoreless over eight innings while striking out 12 in his final Interleague start that season at the Metrodome. He went 5-0 in five starts against National League foes that year, en route to earning his way to his first, and so far only, All-Star bid.

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On Friday night while facing the NL East-leading Braves, Liriano delivered a start reminiscent of that tremendous stretch and perhaps yet another sign that the left-hander is back to his old, dominating self.

Liriano struck out a season-high 11 batters, including a stretch of seven straight, while holding Braves to just one run over eight innings and closer Jon Rauch struck out the side in the ninth to capture a 2-1 victory in the series opener at Target Field.

"Liriano was as good as advertised," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "He's got a really good slider, and he threw a lot of them. He threw some disappearing sliders. He threw some almost Randy Johnson-type sliders."

The night featured a dazzling pitching duel, as Liriano was nearly matched in his outing by Braves starter Tim Hudson during the little more than two-hour contest.

Hudson, who like Liriano is enjoying a resurgent season following Tommy John surgery, held the Twins to the two runs on seven hits over eight innings.

The Braves right-hander cruised through his first six innings, needing only 62 pitches as he allowed just three of the 20 batters he faced to reach base. But in the seventh, the Twins' offense was finally able to strike.

Two infield singles and a liner into left field loaded the bases with no outs for Jim Thome, whom Hudson struck out looking for his first strikeout of the night. Jason Kubel then tied the game at 1 by lacing a single to right field.

With the bases still loaded, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire decided to pinch-hit Delmon Young for third baseman Danny Valencia. The move worked out perfectly as Young lifted a ball into left field for an RBI single that put the Twins up, 2-1.

"I didn't want to not play him tonight, he's been swinging so good," Gardenhire said of Young. "If you have an opportunity to put him in a good situation, that was it. Thome was 9-for-16 off the guy so I put him in tonight, but it's really hard to sit Delmon Young on the bench right now. So I got a good opportunity to put him in a situation, and he got a big hit."

Hudson limited the damage after Young's hit, getting Nick Punto to strike out and Denard Span to ground out with the bases still loaded.

But the damage had been done as Liriano worked his way carefully through the eighth before turning the ball over to Rauch in the ninth. Holding the one-run lead, Rauch struck out Jason Heyward, Jones and Troy Glaus to capture his AL-leading 16th save.

For Hudson, who was 6-1 with a 2.44 ERA in 12 starts heading into Friday night, it's been a strong return to baseball after he missed most of the '09 season due to the surgery. Prior to this start against the Twins, Hudson hadn't lost a decision since April 21.

But Liriano's return to form a little more than three years since having Tommy John surgery himself has been perhaps one of the best storylines for the Twins this season. And he put on a power pitching display on Friday night that left a sellout crowd of 39,428 fans cheering as he walked off the field after recording his final out of the eighth.

"He was impressive," Gardenhire said. "The ball was diving. His fastball was nasty. His changeup was great. His slider at times looked like a curveball -- it was breaking so much. He had great stuff tonight, and you are facing a good hitting baseball team over there so it says a lot about how his stuff was tonight."

The lone run that Liriano allowed came in the second inning on an Omar Infante groundout after he had allowed back-to-back singles to start the frame. He began to cruise after that second single, as he retired 12 straight batters -- which included his stretch of seven consecutive strikeouts that tied him for the team record.

The 11 strikeouts by Liriano on the night were the most he had recorded in an outing since July 28, 2006, vs. Detroit when he struck out 12 batters. And it marked the third time this season that Liriano had recorded double-digit strikeouts, after having not recorded one for the Twins since 2006.

"It means a lot to me," Liriano said. "I had a tough year last year, so I'm just trying to get better every day, game-by-game."

The Twins have sure enjoyed watching Liriano find his dominating slider once again and using that pitch to put hitters away. As he's continued to string together strong outings, even with a few bumps in the road last month, Liriano's confidence has not appeared to waiver. And the Twins seem to be getting back the starter that had been so promising just a little over four years ago.

"Liriano was outstanding," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "It was great to watch, to be honest with you. Two outstanding pitchers going at it."

Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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