KANSAS CITY -- Exactly 19 months since his last big league start, Francisco Liriano took the mound once again for the Twins on Sunday. But Liriano's return to the Major Leagues wasn't exactly reminiscent of the pitcher who dominated the American League as a rookie in 2006. The left-hander looked much more human in his first start back following a 19-month layoff due to Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, giving up four runs over 4 2/3 innings in a 5-1 loss to the Royals on Sunday afternoon at Kauffman Stadium.
"Mentally, he needed to be up here and pitch again here," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "You know what, he did fine. It wasn't a beautiful performance by any means, but he's healthy. The ball was coming out of his hand, and hopefully it will just get better and better from here." Liriano, who was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA during his rookie season, was effective at times in his start, but the Royals were able to scatter six hits and drew a total of five walks. He threw a total of 90 pitches in the outing, 51 of those for strikes. The Twins gave Liriano an early 1-0 lead in the first inning. Brendan Harris reached second base on a fielding error by Royals right fielder Jose Guillen before Justin Morneau drove Harris home with a two-out single to left off Kansas City starter Brian Bannister. It was all the offense that the Twins could manage, mostly due to a dominating pitching performance from Bannister, who finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting last season. The right-hander pitched his second career complete game, giving up just one unearned run on three hits. He also walked one and struck out three. But while Bannister cruised through his outing, Liriano showed signs of struggles from the start. He gave up a single to leadoff hitter Joey Gathright in the bottom of the first. Gathright scored three at-bats later on a single to center by Billy Butler to knot the game at 1. Liriano gave up one run in the second before finding more trouble in the fourth. Appearing to labor at times, Liriano gave up a leadoff double to Alex Gordon and issued a one-out walk to John Buck. They eventually scored on back-to-back singles by Gathright and Esteban German, making it 4-1. As Loriano continued to give up hits, his frustration was clearly reflected by his body language. The pitcher looked sluggish on the mound at times during his outing, with his shoulders sagging after giving up a few lined shots into the outfield. "You could see how frustrated he got on the mound, and usually you didn't see that," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "But you have to remember, he hasn't been out there in a year and a half. You expect some inconsistency with his pitches. Today you saw it. He wasn't real repeatable in his delivery, so that was why [he had] all the inconsistency in his pitches. The more he's out there, the more he's going to make adjustments and handle the situations better." On another very cold day in Kansas City, where the wind chill was only 29 degrees at game time, Liriano said he found the weather to be a factor. Despite having pitched in cold, rainy conditions in during a start for Triple-A Rochester in Norfolk, Va., on Tuesday, Liriano said the weather for this start was much worse. "That was like 50 or 55 degrees," Liriano said. "It was too cold today. I couldn't feel my hands throwing the ball." The left-hander didn't blame all of his troubles on the weather. His inconsistent delivery led to some problems locating his fastball, something the pitcher knows he will have to fix to get himself back on track. "Liriano helped us a little bit [with the walks]," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "He was spotty with his command. You can still see the electric stuff. I didn't get a chance to see it two years ago when he was lights-out, but I can see that's in there." There were positives in the outing for Liriano. The left-hander said that his elbow is no longer a factor mentally. His velocity was also nearing it usual range, with his fastball topping out at 93 mph in the cold conditions. Liriano also showed glimpses of the pitcher who baffled opposing hitters with his dominant slider in 2006. In the first inning, Liriano froze Mark Teahen on a called third strike with that nasty slider. He got Guillen to strike out swinging on the same pitch to end the inning. "He did throw some vintage Liriano pitches today," catcher Mike Redmond said. "I could see as the game went on, he got more and more comfortable. He was getting in a little bit more of rhythm and feeling good. Toward the end, you could tell he was getting tired. "But like I told him, just 'Welcome back. Results aside, this is a huge day for you and us as a team.'" Liriano's next outing will come Friday night in a start against Cleveland in the Metrodome. The hope is that the warmer temperatures inside the dome will provide a better opportunity for the left-hander to showcase his stuff. Despite the unevenness Liriano showed Sunday, the Twins will be patient with the 24-year-old starter. "It's been a long time coming since he's been back out on the mound," Gardenhire said. "The young man has great stuff and a great arm. Even the home-plate umpire [Darryl Cousins] said he had fantastic stuff. So we look forward to running him back out on the mound again."
Kelly Thesier is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.