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Liriano shines as Twins best Lee, Rangers

Liriano shines as Twins best Lee, Rangers

ARLINGTON -- The Twins were one of the teams considered to be a front-runner for Cliff Lee when the left-handed ace was on the trading block in early July. Instead, Lee wound up getting traded to Texas and the Twins looked within their own club to find help for their struggling rotation.

On Thursday night, the Twins got their first chance to face Lee since the Rangers acquired him on July 9, but it was Minnesota's own lefty, not Lee, who delivered the more impressive performance in the series finale.

Liriano held the Rangers to two runs over seven innings and struck out six while the Twins tagged Lee for five runs in five innings. And the Twins avoided getting swept in the four-game series by closing it out with a 6-4 victory over Texas at the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.

This start seemed to be a big one for Liriano.

The Twins had pushed the left-hander's outing back a couple days due to some concern that Liriano was battling a case of dead arm. And whether or not it was the extra rest, Liriano certainly looked about as strong as he has all season in the early innings of the win.

"I feel way better," Liriano said. "I think when you feel better, you can do things better too."

Thanks to his ability to attack the strike zone and get ahead of the Rangers hitters early in the count, Liriano improved to 12-7 on the year. The 12 wins match the lefty's career high set back during his tremendous 2006 rookie season.

The numbers this season aren't a surprise considering that Liriano has started to look more like the pitcher he was prior to undergoing Tommy John surgery. The dominance that Liriano showed in his rookie year will likely never be replicated, but Liriano has certainly recaptured some of the form that made him a top of the rotation starter in '06.

"He had good stuff," Rangers third baseman Michael Young said. "He got ahead early and that was a big key. Liriano's stuff is as good as any left-hander and the key was he got ahead. He was able to use that good slider and that good changeup late in the count. He was extremely tough late in the count."

Liriano held the Rangers to just one hit over the first 5 2/3 innings of his start. His first hit came on a two-out single to Jorge Cantu in the second inning. Following Cantu's single, Liriano retired 12 straight batters before giving up an infield single to Young on a liner back up the middle that hit off the heel of his glove hand and bounced toward third base. But Liriano remained in the game.

While Liriano cruised through much of his start, the Twins built him a sizable lead. Delmon Young hit a three-run homer in the second inning off Lee and Michael Cuddyer added a two-run double with two outs in the third to make it a 5-0 Twins lead.

"If he makes a mistake, you have to capitalize on it," Young said of Lee. "We did that today. Usually a lot of times we foul it off, but today when we did get a pitch out over the plate, we were able to put good wood on it, which is rare when you are facing a guy like that."

Jim Thome hit career home run No. 582 in the sixth inning off reliever Alexi Ogando to extend Minnesota's lead to 6-0. The 430-foot solo shot to center field put Thome one homer shy of tying Mark McGwire for ninth place on the all-time list.

Liriano couldn't keep Texas scoreless, giving up two runs in his final inning of work as the Rangers finally got to him. Texas scored twice that inning on an RBI single by David Murphy off Cuddyer's glove at first and a sacrifice fly by Andres Blanco.

Things got a little tight toward the end of the contest. Vladimir Guerrero belted a two-run homer to left field off Matt Guerrier with two outs in the eighth to cut the Twins' lead to 6-4. That left closer Matt Capps to come on and try to close the game out in the ninth. He retired the side in order to capture his sixth save with the Twins and 32nd overall on the season.

Still, it was another positive for the rotation that's seen many stellar starts after the team found itself out of the Lee sweepstakes. Twins starters are 18-7 with a 3.32 ERA since Brian Duensing was moved into the rotation on July 23.

Liriano has been one of the brightest spots in the rotation over that time. He is undefeated since the All-Star break, going 6-0 with a 2.47 ERA in eight starts.

The Rangers, meanwhile, haven't had as much luck with Lee. His loss on Thursday night brought his record to 2-5 with a 4.50 ERA in 10 starts since coming to Texas. The team is 3-7 overall when Lee takes the mound.

The Twins had originally planned to have Liriano start Monday against the Rangers and not throw a bullpen between his outings. But when Kevin Slowey suffered a strained triceps and Nick Blackburn was called up to join the rotation, the Twins took the opportunity to push Liriano's start back from Monday to Thursday -- giving him extra rest and the chance to throw a slight bullpen on the side.

Liriano's fatigue at this point in the year is not a surprise considering that he estimates he threw around 50 innings in winter ball in the Dominican Republic this past offseason. But that was the time when Liriano regained the confidence that he had lost while going 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA for the Twins in 2009. So he considers winter ball to be a big reason why he's pitching like he is this season.

"I got my confidence back and my arm feels great," Liriano said. "I was throwing harder. It was a good thing for me to do."

But that doesn't mean he'll continue to pitch that much every winter.

"I won't pitch winter ball this year, not at all," Liriano said. "I think I need a break."

Just not until after the Twins' season is over and the club, who kept a 3 1/2-game lead over the White Sox in the American League Central with the victory on Thursday, is hoping that won't be the case for quite some time.

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

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