FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Before Francisco Liriano's start Sunday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire hinted the ballclub was leaning toward having the talented left-hander start the season in the Minor Leagues. But following a much better outing, Liriano has apparently bought himself at least one more start to try to prove that he's ready to be a part of the Twins' rotation. Liriano pitched four hitless innings against the Orioles in a 3-1 victory on Sunday afternoon. He walked just two batters and struck out five while throwing a total of 68 pitches in his fourth start of the spring.
"If we didn't see any improvement over the last time, then yes, we probably would have made a decision that we would need more time with him," Gardenhire said. "But he's given us an opportunity here to say, 'Let's see him next time.'" It appeared early on in Liriano's outing that he may not get such a chance. In the first inning, the lefty still looked apprehensive to let go of all of his pitches -- something the Twins clearly did not want to see. But Liriano came out in the second inning and started showing signs of progress, Gardenhire said. That continued throughout the rest of his start. Liriano threw just 12 pitches in a quick 1-2-3 fourth inning, and his velocity also increased. His fastball topped out around 93-94 mph on Sunday -- an improvement from his earlier starts. "[Sunday] was exciting, we saw a glimpse of what we hoped to see," Gardenhire said. "We started to see some balls snap, the fastball jumped a little and guys were making some ugly swings. That's what we are hoping we get to by the end here -- whether we keep him [on the big league roster] or not." Liriano's progress this spring has been slow at best. It's not something that was unexpected for the Twins considering that he was just 15 months removed from such an invasive surgery like Tommy John ligament replacement on his left elbow. The pitcher was also hampered by a late arrival at camp due to visa troubles. The club lost nine workout days with the pitcher, and Gardenhire said it's been a case of "trying to play catchup without forcing the issue." But perhaps the biggest hurdle Liriano, 24, has yet to clear is proving to the Twins he's willing to be more forthright with them. On Saturday, Gardenhire expressed his concern about that issue, recalling incidents in the past in which the communication between the two sides was what he called "out of whack." That included Liriano not being honest with the team about the pain he was having in his elbow prior to undergoing the surgery and leaving Instructional League in October early without telling anyone. Following his start on Sunday, Liriano acknowledged he needs to work on his communication with the club. "That's what I'm doing now, trying to be honest with them and do whatever they want me to do," Liriano said. "We'll be better this year. If something is bothering me I will tell them."
Twins general manager Bill Smith said Sunday that he doesn't believe the two sides have a communication issue."I think a challenge for every organization with young players is to build trust and confidence," Smith said. "We have to gain their confidence and they have to gain ours." Liriano is scheduled to make his final start of the spring Friday in Fort Myers against the Pirates. The left-hander said he's yet to have a discussion with Gardenhire and pitching coach Rick Anderson regarding their plans for him once the season starts. He knows a spot in the club's rotation is not guaranteed, and he said he's already considered the alternative of having to begin the year in the Minors. "It would be another step for me," Liriano said. "If I have to start in the Minor Leagues, I just don't want to go to Triple-A [Rochester]. It'd be too cold down there. I'd rather start here in [Class A] Fort Myers. "I've already thought about it because they might think that I'm not ready to start the season, but I think I'm ready to go." Liriano believes that he's ready and he'll get a chance to show that Friday. But the reality is that Gardenhire still needs more convincing. "If he progresses and it looks fine, that's fine, but [Anderson] and I are both leery of what's going on," Gardenhire said. "We want to do the right things with this young man."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.