Long road back ends for Twins' Liriano

Long road back ends for Twins' Liriano

KANSAS CITY -- The chants rang through the visiting clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium as soon as Francisco Liriano walked in the door around 5 p.m. CT on Saturday.

"Franchise is back!" Mike Redmond shouted.

Clearly, the Twins are excited to have Liriano in their rotation once again.

Liriano rejoined his Twins teammates the day before he's set to make his return to the Major Leagues. His start Sunday afternoon against the Royals will mark the final step in what has been a long comeback from Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery for the 24-year-old left-hander.

When Liriano takes the mound Sunday, it will be exactly 19 months since he last pitched in a big league game. On Sept. 13, 2006, Liriano pitched just two innings in a start against the A's before he left with elbow pain.

He underwent the surgery that November, and since then, it's been a long road to recovery -- one Liriano is excited to see reach its full circle point Sunday.

"It's something big for me," Liriano said. "It's my comeback again, so I want to go out there and try to do the best I can."

The Twins seem just as eager to watch Liriano's return to the mound.

"I don't know how he's going to do," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "I know he's got great stuff. It's just going to depend on whether he throws the ball over or not. I think our team is excited, though. We all know how good this guy is."

In Spring Training, the Twins saw glimpses of the pitcher who was a Rookie of the Year frontrunner in 2006 before getting hurt. While it was a spring full of ups and downs, Liriano at times looked like he could regain his previous form.

"There was a few times out there where he just dominated a couple innings where we were like, [oh]," Gardenhire said. "And our catchers, both of them, told me a couple times there towards the end, he's got as good of stuff as anybody on our staff."

But Liriano, who went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in his rookie season, wasn't exactly dominant in two Minor League starts geared to help him raise his pitch count to near 100 pitches. In those two outings, one for Class A Fort Myers and another at Triple-A Rochester, he posted a 7.56 ERA.

The pitcher himself even labeled his performance "OK."

"I was just trying to work on my pitches, and I think I have to throw more fastballs," Liriano said.

There is one area where Liriano did see vast improvement during his short Minor League stint, and that was his ability to throw his slider without any apprehension. Even in his final Spring Training start, Liriano was still a bit fearful to really let loose with the pitch.

Now, that fear appears to be gone.

"I'm just letting it go right now," Liriano said. "I don't feel anything in my mind. I'm just trying to let it go."

Exactly the type of impact that Liriano's return will have on the Twins is unknown. While the team would love Liriano to be the dominating arm that he was in '06, the Twins' need doesn't seem to be quite as dire right now.

The starting staff has been one of the team's highlights so far this season, recording six quality starts and posting a 3.54 ERA in the club's first 10 games.

But the Twins' skipper acknowledged that getting a pitcher back like Liriano could end up being just the spark the team needs.

"He could be huge for us," Gardenhire said. "He's kind of one of those guys who can make your staff go from OK, which we like, to being pretty impressive at times.

"He had No. 1 dominating stuff before he got hurt. Now we'll have to see if he's got No. 1 dominating stuff coming back and whether he can throw it over. But he has that ability, we've seen it. Now we'll see if he can find that same form."

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