The 24-year-old -- who hadn't won a Major League game in more than two years -- responded emphatically in his return to the Metrodome, throwing six shutout innings to lead Minnesota to a 6-2 victory over Cleveland on Sunday.
After a disastrous three-game run with the Twins in April in his attempt to return from his 2006 Tommy John ligament replacement surgery, the lefty reminded the faithful early of the electric stuff he possessed when dazzling the baseball world as a rookie.Take the first three Cleveland batters: Grady Sizemore (strikeout swinging), Jamey Carroll (weak infield popout), Ben Francisco (strikeout swinging). End of inning. "I was thinking, 'I am going to have to take him out with a no-hitter going into the seventh ... and you're going to boo me,'" manager Ron Gardenhire joked. Liriano admitted to being as nervous as he has been in a start since he first came up in 2005. He wore it well, deftly dancing out of danger whenever it arose, striking out five while allowing three hits and three walks. Liriano first got out of a big jam in the third when he struck Francisco out with the bases loaded and two outs. In the fourth, with runners on first and second and one out, Liriano induced a double-play grounder from Franklin Gutierrez. In the fifth, with runners on second and third and two out, Liriano again stymied Francisco, this time with a groundout to end the inning. "We made him work in the middle innings, but we didn't take advantage of it," Indians manager Eric Wedge said. An elevated pitch count -- 96 in six frames -- prevented Liriano from going further. "He can get in trouble, and his out pitch, he can always go to that slider," Gardenhire said. "We saw that a few times, where he still has a lot of faith in that slider." It wasn't the vaunted slider that befuddled hitters during Liriano's 12-3, 2.16 ERA campaign of 2006. That slider stayed in the low 90s while diving down. But the pitch required such great torque that it was unhealthy for his arm. His current slider, still formidable, stays in the mid-80s. Sunday's victory snapped a wretched 3-9 record the club had possessed since mid-May in games on days it entered a half-game out of the division lead. Minnesota was aided by Kansas City's concurrently played 14-3 victory over Chicago. Denard Span was keeping close tabs from his post in right field. "I was watching [the scoreboard] -- from like the fifth inning. I saw it was 8-0, then all of a sudden 10-0, and I was like, 'Uh-oh!,' then 12-2," Span said. "I knew Kansas City was taking care of business, and it feels good." Minnesota's offense first got to Cleveland starter Matt Ginter in the third inning, when Brendan Harris charged a first-pitch fastball 370-feet over the left-field fence. Mike Lamb's RBI triple into the right-field corner in the fifth inning doubled the lead. The next batter, Brian Buscher, singled Lamb in. The Twins tacked on two in the sixth via a Nick Punto RBI triple and a wild pitch that ultimately allowed him to score. Span hit an insurance solo homer in the eighth, ensuring the club didn't have to summon closer Joe Nathan for a save situation. Ginter allowed five earned runs in six innings while striking out three. It was Liriano's first victory since July 23, 2006, when he beat the Indians in Cleveland, 3-1, while striking out 10 in five innings. He was asked in the clubhouse after the game if he could recall his last victory. "No. I don't remember at all," Liriano said with a chuckle. "It's been a long time." Liriano's showing went miles to demonstrate to the club that he is truly healed from surgery after going 0-3 with an 11.32 ERA in three starts earlier in the year. And after Liriano's start Sunday, Redmond offered a truly troubling thought for future opponents. "He's only going to get stronger, stronger, stronger as he keeps going," the catcher said. "He's only going to improve." For the Twins, it was a day of new beginnings and renewed hope. It was a day when fans saw a ghost from the past and it caused them to dream of future possibilities. For Liriano, it was a day of considerable redemption. And he promises to calm down for his next start in Kansas City. "I feel way better," Liriano said after the game, exhaling. "Not as nervous anymore." Nor is a team that has finally caught Chicago after trying to do so for more than two-and-a-half months. "It feels good to finally say we're in first place, for at least a day," Span said. "We can't sneak up on anybody anymore this year. Everybody knows we are for real this year."
Thor Nystrom is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.