PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said he called Francisco Liriano into his office this week in an effort to "clear the air" with the left-hander. The Twins have been examining internal options for the closer role should Joe Nathan decide to undergo season-ending surgery on the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. Liriano has been mentioned as a candidate for the job, and it's led to the pitcher being asked many questions about the possibility of closing over the past week. With all of that attention coming Liriano's way, Gardenhire wanted to make some things clear to him during their meeting: for now, Liriano is a starter and if that changes, the lefty will be the first to know.
"We said, 'We're getting you ready to start the season as one of our starters, Frankie,'" Gardenhire said. "That's all it is. If there is any decision made otherwise, we would go talk to him or anybody else we decided to do that with before we tell anybody else. We're preparing him to be a starter." So at least for now, Liriano remains on track for what he came into spring to do -- compete for the fifth spot in the rotation. In his latest start on Saturday, Liriano pitched three scoreless innings in the Twins' 6-2 win over the Rays while allowing three hits and striking out four. He had been expected to go out for a fourth inning, but there was a long delay in the top of that inning due to an injury that Rays catcher Dioner Navarro suffered in a collision at the plate with Twins outfielder Jacque Jones. The Twins then made the decision to not have Liriano go back out for another inning.
"The ball was coming out of his hand good, but coming out of the long injury there, we just shut him down," Gardenhire said.It was a continuation of the success that Liriano has had this spring, having allowed three earned runs while striking out 16 over 10 innings. But Gardenhire said that no decision has been made yet on who will be the club's fifth starter when the 2010 season opens. "It's too soon to say the least," Gardenhire said when asked if Liriano is the fifth starter. "But he's doing great. He's confident, the whole package." Liriano's success in a starting role this spring could make the club lean toward one of its other internal candidates for the closing job -- or perhaps Minnesota could look outside the organization for a solution. It's a decision the club won't make until it knows whether or not Nathan will undergo surgery -- something it could likely find out this weekend after the closer tries to play catch for the first time with the injury. But while things are up in the air, Gardenhire wants Liriano just to concentrate on being a starter and not concern himself with anything else that might happen. "We came in here saying fifth spot is open and he's one of the guys competing for it," Gardenhire said. "I think that's what he wants to do ... but if we ever decide something, he would be the first to know."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.