Liriano rides Comeback honors into ALDS

Liriano rides Comeback honors into ALDS

MINNEAPOLIS -- Francisco Liriano can pinpoint the exact moment he first felt that things were about to turn around for him.

The Twins' left-hander had returned home to the Dominican Republic following what was personally a disappointing 2009 season. His confidence was waning after going 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA and his arm was feeling the worst it had felt since he underwent Tommy John surgery in November 2006.

So, he shut things down for about 20 days, resting his arm and the rest of his body, before he asked the Twins if he could pitch winter ball. His hope was that perhaps he could find something to get himself back on track.

And it was in his second start for the Leones del Escogido in the Dominican Winter League that everything suddenly came together for Liriano.

"I was throwing 95, 96 [mph] and I was so happy," Liriano said. "I was getting my slider back and the location of my fastball was better than it had been. It was like I was back."

The left-hander had waited quite a while to again feel like the pitcher who had dazzled the league in his rookie season in 2006, but it was just the start of what would be a memorable comeback season for Liriano.

Liriano's turnaround in 2010 earned him the honor of being named the American League's Comeback Player of the Year in voting by the 30 MLB.com beat reporters. Liriano received 11 first-place votes to finish ahead of Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre and Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton in the voting.

The MLB Comeback Player of the Year Award is presented annually to one player in each League who has reemerged on the baseball field during the season. Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson was the National League recipient of the honor.

Liriano went 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA in 31 starts for the Twins in 2010. He reestablished himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball while helping the Twins capture their second straight AL Central title.

His 14 wins were a career-high, as were his 31 starts, 191 2/3 innings pitched and 201 strikeouts. The 2006 AL All-Star finished fifth in the league in strikeouts (second among left-handers behind Boston's Jon Lester) and tied for the league's second-longest winning streak with a career-best eight-game run from July 16-Sept. 14 (11 starts).

Liriano also was named AL Pitcher of the Month in April after going 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA, making him the only AL pitcher with an ERA under 1.00 during the month. 

All of that has put Liriano in line to start Game 1 of the AL Division Series against the Yankees on Wednesday night at Target Field.

"He took an unbelievable step," said Twins center fielder Denard Span. "I think everyone saw it the first month of the season when he came out and he was arguably one of the best pitchers in the league. He pretty much maintained that throughout the whole season. "

It's been a long road for Liriano to get back to this point. The elbow injury that he suffered in early August 2006 halted what had been a phenomenal rookie season, when he took the baseball world by storm with a 12-3 record and a 2.16 ERA. At the time, it only seemed a matter of how many big playoff games that Liriano would start for Minnesota, not when they might come.

But after an unsuccessful attempt to rehab his elbow injury that season, Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery that November. He missed the entire 2007 season before trying to make his comeback in April 2008. After his first return flopped, Liriano showed promise -- although not a return in velocity -- during a late season stint with the club over the final two months in '08. But then came last season.

After an injury to Scott Baker forced the pitcher to start the '09 season on the disabled list, Liriano got the call to start Opening Day with hopes of a rebound season. But the struggles followed and by the end of August, Liriano was moved into the bullpen due to a combination of his lack of confidence and a fatigued arm.

And when Liriano went home last October after the Twins were swept in three games by the Yankees in the ALDS, he didn't know whether he would ever be close to the pitcher he was in '06.

"I thought I was done," Liriano said. "My arm wasn't feeling that well. I wasn't throwing as hard. Sometimes I would get so frustrated that I just didn't want to pitch anymore."

Then there was the winter ball start where everything clicked, and Liriano found himself beginning what would be a huge turnaround. He went on to star in the playoffs for Escogido del Leones, even starting the championship game that his team won. And now he's going to get the same opportunity to help spark the Twins in the postseason and to try to capture another championship, this time a World Series title.

"I think about it sometimes," Liriano said in regard to how far he's come. "I had a tough year last year and the year before. But now I'm feeling like I did in '06. It's a great feeling."

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