- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2011

CHICAGO (AP) - Francisco Liriano showed his potential five years ago as a rookie All-Star and 12-game winner for the Minnesota Twins. Then came the down time, elbow surgery, a missed season and a struggle to regain his form and his confidence.

A year ago he appeared to have found his way back, winning 14 games and the AL Comeback Player award. But when 2011 started, he was having problems again with control and was 1-4 with a 9.13 ERA. His spot in the rotation was in jeopardy.

Then the left-hander took the mound on a cold Tuesday night against the Chicago White Sox and pitched the game of his life, a no-hitter. Now the question: Can he carry that type of effective pitching into the rest of the season?

“You know what? It’s just been a struggle and obviously in the game when you struggle, you put a lot of pressure on yourself,” Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson said Wednesday.

“He’s been doing that, out in games, overthrowing and trying to do a little much to get it going. Last night by no means did he have his greatest stuff, but I think he had great results with it and with that hopefully will build some confidence with him.”

Liriano walked six and got some strong defense behind him, including one nice play by third baseman Danny Valencia, who went into foul territory in the seventh to grab Carlos Quentin’s hard hopper and throw him out. Denard Span made a nice running catch of Quentin’s drive to left center in the fourth. And then in the ninth, with the tension building, first baseman Justin Morneau made a beautiful scoop of a low throw from shortstop Matt Tolbert to retire Brent Morel.

Tolbert then snagged Adam Dunn’s liner to end the game.

Liriano showed up at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday morning, a little more than 12 hours after completing his 2-hour, 9-minute masterpiece _ the first complete game and shutout of his pro career that began back in 2001.

He was weary. And he was the talk of the Dominican Republic.

“Yeah, I got like 55 text messages and a lot of phone calls from family back home. They were pretty happy back home,” Liriano said. “My brothers and sisters and all my friends and cousins. They called until about four in the morning.

“I didn’t sleep at all. Too many phone calls,” he said. “Thinking a lot of stuff, you know. How the game went and everything. Thinking about a lot of stuff.”

Liriano was acquired in a 2003 trade with the San Francisco Giants that also brought Joe Nathan to Minnesota in exchange for A.J. Pierzynski, now the White Sox catcher.

He burst onto the scene in 2006, going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and dominating overmatched hitters with an untouchable slider. But the violent delivery caused him to develop arm problems toward the end of the season and resulted in Tommy John surgery that November.

His road back has been long and difficult. Liriano missed all of 2007, spent a good portion of the following season in the minors and then struggled to regain his form over the next two years, leading some to wonder if the power lefty would ever make it all the way back.

He went just 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA in 2009.

Liriano started last season as the Twins‘ fifth starter, but a strong season of winter ball in the Dominican Republic buoyed his confidence, and he steadily worked his way to the top of the rotation as the season wore on. He won 14 games and fanned 201 batters, fifth best in the American League, while pitching a career-high 191 2-3 innings.

The Twins did not pursue any frontline starters over the offseason, hoping that Liriano could finally be the stopper they have lacked since trading Johan Santana to the New York Mets.

Liriano irked manager Ron Gardenhire and Anderson in February when he showed up to spring training a little out of shape _ and told the Twins brass he had not been doing the exercises they instructed him to do to keep his arm strong through the winter.

He was limited in spring because of the soreness as he worked his way back into shape, and then got off to a terrible start in 2011.

Now, all is forgiven.

“It was a big pick-us-up that everyone gets to enjoy in this clubhouse. I’m really happy for the young man,” Gardenhire said. “He’s worked so hard and takes the game so personal. He feels terrible when he doesn’t get the job done out there on the mound, so it’s good to see him with a big smile on his face and the guys slapping him on the back and beating him around after a win.

It’s exciting for us all, we needed a win,” Gardenhire said. “We’d lost six in a row. To get a no-hitter on top is a big bonus.”

Gardenhire isn’t sure when Liriano will make his next start. It could come Monday at Fenway Park or Tuesday before the home crowd at Target Field against Detroit.

Liriano threw 123 pitches and only 66 of them for strikes Thursday night

“I’m not that sore today. If they give me the extra day that will be fine for me,” Liriano said. “I was getting a little tired but not that bad.”

Anderson said his job had been to keep Liriano upbeat during his poor start. Now he wants to make sure his lefty stays on an even keel, moving ahead without changing what he accomplished Tuesday night. Cutting down on the walks will be one point of emphasis _ he has 24 in 32 2-3 innings.

“The pitching coach’s job is not just mechanics and game plans and what nots,” Anderson said. “It’s to keep your mental part of it. My biggest things with him was trying to keep him confident. Now probably my biggest things is to keep him right where he should be.”


AP Baseball Writer Jon Krawczynski in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

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