The Liriano Dilemma

Despite tossing eight innings of two-run ball yesterday, Francisco Liriano was unable to pick up a win against the Royals thanks to an inept showing by the Twins offense. Liriano gave up some hard hits early in the game, but settled in after the Royals scored their second run in the third inning to retire 15 batters in a row. In total, he allowed six hits in the outing while striking out six and walking none, and remains undefeated in eight starts since being recalled from Triple-A. During that span, heƒ?Ts 5-0 with a 1.57 ERA and 44-to-12 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 51 2/3 innings of work.

Liriano has shown steady progress in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. He looked downright horrible during a three-start stint with the Twins in April, unable to find the strike zone or get his fastball over 90 miles per hour with any kind of regularity. He was sent down to Class-AAA Rochester, and the three months he spent there clearly did him a lot of good. Since being recalled to replace Livan Hernandez in the Twins rotation in the beginning of August, Liriano has been a vastly different pitcher. Most noticeably, his control has greatly improved ƒ?" he has now handed out just two free passes in his last four starts, and in conjunction with a low hit rate heƒ?Ts made it very difficult for opponents to reach base against him, as his 0.95 WHIP will attest. His strikeout and ground ball rates arenƒ?Tt quite where they were in 2006, but based on results, Liriano has been every bit as effective as he was during that magical rookie campaign.

This is where things start to get tricky for Twins management though. Liriano has only logged 62 innings at the big-league level this season, but when his work in the minors is taken into account, heƒ?Ts up to 185 1/3 innings. Thatƒ?Ts a higher total than that of any other member of the Twinsƒ?T rotation, and Liriano is the one who missed all of 2007 while rehabbing from a major elbow surgery. Itƒ?Ts pretty rare that a pitcher tosses more 200 innings in his first season back after the Tommy John procedure, but Liriano seems almost certain to surpass that mark handily, especially if the Twins make the playoffs.

So how does manager Ron Gardenhire handle this situation? The Twins, trailing the White Sox by just a game in the AL Central, are in a position where every win is crucially important, and Liriano has been the teamƒ?Ts most effective starter by far over the past month. Yet, the Twins are moving into uncharted territory with his workload, and the 24-year-old phenomƒ?Ts long-term health has to be viewed as the most important factor here.

Gardenhire is stuck between a rock and a hard place. This is certainly a situation worth keeping an eye on, especially if Liriano is on your roster. Now, for a quick run through the rest of Thursdayƒ?Ts MLB actionƒ?Ý

* Takashi Saito threw a 26-pitch simulated game without incident Wednesday, and is expected to return from the disabled list on Saturday. After initially indicating that he expected to resume the closer role when he rejoined the club, Saiko has backed off that statement in recent days, telling the Los Angeles Times, ƒ?oI didn't come to the United States wanting to be a closer.ƒ??

Jonathan Broxton has been extremely effective since taking over closing duties from Saito, converting 13 of 15 save opportunities while posting a 3.13 ERA and 35-to-8 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 23 innings.

A reader e-mailed me last week asking how I felt the closer situations would play out for the rest of the season in Los Angeles and Tampa Bay, with Saiko and Troy Percival returning from stints on the DL and with both of their replacements pitching well. I predicted that Percival would go back to getting the majority of save opportunities for the Rays, while the Dodgers would stick with Broxton. So far, thatƒ?Ts how both situations are playing out.

* Adrian Beltre has a torn ligament in his left thumb and doctors have recommended that he have surgery to repair the problem. The team is reportedly pushing for him to have the procedure now in order to ensure that heƒ?Tll be ready for the start of the 2009 campaign, but Beltre wants to finish the season. Itƒ?Ts unclear why heƒ?Ts so intent on playing out a lost season with a bad thumb, but the guess here is that he wonƒ?Tt be able to do so even if he wants to. Beltre was the subject of trade rumors around the deadline this season, and with one year left on his contract for a team that seems to have a lot of work to do before becoming competitive, rumors are likely to pop up again during the offseason. It will be interesting to see how the thumb surgery affects any potential trade discussions.

* The Cubs were scheduled to travel to Houston for a three-game set against the Astros this weekend, but will forego that trip in order to avoid the looming Hurricane Ike. The teams discussed playing in a neutral site such as St. Louis or Atlanta, but with no agreement being reached, Friday and Saturdayƒ?Ts games will both be postponed. Jason Marquis and Jack Cassel were scheduled to match up on Friday night, with Carlos Zambrano and Alberto Arias scheduled on Saturday. All four hurlers will see their starts pushed back. For Zambrano, who has been battling a sore shoulder lately, this may be a hidden blessing.

* Roy Oswalt threw his second consecutive shutout on Thursday night, a three-hitter against the Pirates. He has now worked 32 1/3 consecutive scoreless innings across his past four starts. The right-hander had a terrible first half, which might have had something to do with a hip injury that put him on the disabled list in early July, but heƒ?Ts been lights-out since the All-Star break. Oswaltƒ?Ts overall numbers this season might not be terribly impressive, but heƒ?Ts a good bet to bounce back with a strong season in 2009.

AL Quick Hits: Francisco Rodriguez picked up his 57th save on Thursday night, tying the major-league record ƒ?Ý George Sherrill has been activated from the 15-day DL and should assume closing duties for the Orioles immediately ƒ?Ý Trey Hillman said that Alex Gordon is in line to return to the Royals on Saturday ƒ?Ý Brandon Duckworth struck out five over five innings of work on Thursday after posting a 5/10 K/BB ratio in his prior three starts this season ƒ?Ý David Price may start the second game of a Rays double-header on Saturday, Sept. 23 ƒ?Ý Brian Bass allowed three runs ƒ?" one earned ƒ?" over 4 1/3 innings in his first major-league start on Thursday night ƒ?Ý Jered Weaver tossed six shutout innings in his first start since cutting up his hand on dugout upholstery a couple weeks ago ƒ?Ý Paul Konerkoƒ?Ts strained knee will keep him out of the White Sox lineup for at least this weekend.

NL Quick Hits: Ryan Howard homered and drove in three runs on Thursday night, increasing his league-leading totals to 43 and 129 ƒ?Ý Tom Gorzelanny may be shut down for the season after suffering possible ligament damage to his left middle finger on Wednesday ƒ?Ý Brad Thompson will get a spot start in place of Kyle Lohse this weekend ƒ?Ý Albert Pujols drove in his 100th run on Thursday, and has reached that mark in eight straight seasons ƒ?Ý Jair Jurrjens struck out a career-high 10 batters in a win over the Rockies on Thursday night ƒ?Ý The Rockies have decided to pull struggling Livan Hernandez from their rotation ƒ?Ý Adrian Gonzalez homered twice on Thursday night, increasing his season total to a career-high 31.

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