Liriano's Minors stay could be extended

Liriano's return not set in stone

MINNEAPOLIS -- The expectation is still that Francisco Liriano will rejoin the Twins following his two Minor League starts.

Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, however, said Thursday morning that it's not a guarantee.

"Two starts and we'll see where he's at," Gardenhire said. "I think with two starts, if everything continues on as is with him stepping up each time, he should be really close to being ready for here.

"But it has to continue. If he stays flat and stays about the same with his location and he's throwing the ball all over the place, then we'll extend [the Minor League stint] out. It's up to him now to keep elevating [his game]."

Liriano, who is coming off Tommy John ligament replacement surgery in November 2006, is set to make the first of those two Minor League starts on Thursday night. The left-hander will pitch the season opener for the Twins Class A Fort Myers club at 6:05 p.m. CT.

Former Twins general manager Terry Ryan and Twins Minor League pitching coordinator Rick Knapp will both be on hand to watch the start.

Gardenhire said the plan is to increase Liriano's pitch count to around 80 or 85. And the hope is that Liriano can continue the progress he made after having a delayed arrival to camp due to visa troubles, including a strong final spring start. The left-hander was 2-2 with a 4.02 ERA in five spring starts.

"It's a continuation of Spring Training from the 10 days or so that he missed," Gardenhire said of Liriano's schedule. "We don't really know about what he did down in the Dominican. We know that he wasn't going to the park every day and taking ground balls and doing drills. I know that for a fact, so his legs are that far behind. He was throwing some games and he would throw a 'pen, but other than that, in between, he didn't do much."

"So now it's about getting your legs underneath you and getting your arm stretched out at the same time."

The plan is still to have Liriano start again in five days for Triple-A Rochester and bring his pitch count to near 100. After that start, a determination will be made about the left-hander's future. If Liriano is deemed ready to go after his two Minor League starts, the decision of whom he will replace in the rotation could be a difficult one.

Right-hander Nick Blackburn would appear to be that guy after he earned the final spot when the Liriano decision was made. But Blackburn made quite an impressive debut in his first career start Wednesday night, giving up just one run to the Angels on five hits over seven innings.

"I hope it's a real tough decision," Gardenhire said. "That means the other guys are throwing good and that's never a problem, believe me."

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