Liriano back with Opening Day start

Liriano back with Opening Day start

Francisco Liriano arrived at Hammond Stadium on Thursday morning with the expectation that he'd be pitching five or six innings against the Red Sox in his final tuneup for the 2009 season.

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But it turned out to be a much shorter outing than Liriano expected.

That's because just before he took the mound in his last spring start, Liriano was informed by the Twins that his first assignment of the regular season had been moved up -- to Opening Day.

"I'm a little bit nervous for the Opening Day thing," Liriano said after pitching three scoreless innings on Thursday. "But I just have to put it in my mind that it's another start -- just go out there and do the best I can."

Liriano got the nod for Opening Day after the Twins placed Scott Baker on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder stiffness.

It came as a complete surprise to Liriano, who was unaware before Thursday that there was even a chance that Baker might not start the season with the team.

"It's going to be honor for me to get the opportunity to start Opening Day," Liriano said. "At the same time, I feel bad for Baker. This was going to be his first start on Opening Day."

If there is anyone who truly knows how it feels to have a big moment sidetracked by injury, it's Liriano.

For the 25-year-old lefty, it's been a long road to get to this Opening Day start.

Liriano watched his phenomenal 2006 rookie season come to a screeching halt in August of that year. Elbow discomfort shut the pitcher down and after rehab failed, Liriano underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery in November 2006.

He missed the entire 2007 season and then had to overcome the ups and downs of his first year back following surgery in 2008 -- which included his share of setbacks last spring.

"I had a problem with my visa so I came late," Liriano said. "My arm wasn't feeling that well. This year, I just came in trying to get all of my pitches together."

It was an up-and-down season for Liriano in '08. One that began with a futile three-start return for Liriano in April and that ended with him returning to the Twins rotation on Aug. 1 and going 6-1 with a 2.74 ERA in his final 11 starts.

During that improved stint at the end of last season, Liriano provided glimpses of the pitcher who baffled opposing hitters.

But what the Twins have come to realize is that while Liriano may still be a talented hurler with lots of potential, he's not the same pitcher he was during that stellar rookie season.

The trademark slider doesn't possess the same nasty bite it once did and his velocity doesn't consistently reach the mid-90s anymore.

Yet perhaps that's not such a bad thing. Without the ability to blow hitters away like he used to, Liriano has developed into more of a pitcher -- one that still can cause opposing hitters to stare at the Twins' dugout in bewilderment.

"In the past, he was slider-happy and that was the only pitch he really trusted in," pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "Now he's getting the feel of changing speeds and working the ball in and out. That's the biggest thing. He's trying to pitch instead of just throwing."

One particular pitch that Liriano has developed since his injury is his changeup, which he said was his go-to pitch before coming to the Twins from the Giants as part of the A.J. Pierzynski trade in 2004.

During the time when he was unable to throw the slider, the pitcher worked to perfect his changeup once again and this spring he's wowed scouts and teammates with the pitch.

Manager Ron Gardenhire even called Liriano's changeup, "Santana-like" in reference to former Twins ace Johan Santana who throws one of the best changeups in the game.

"I think there is a confidence level now where he has no worries about anything," Gardenhire said. "He's just back to pitching. And for us, that's just fun to watch."

The work this spring is now over and Liriano said that he "can't wait" to get started on his first healthy season since the suffering the injury. That season will start with the Twins' talented young lefty facing off against Seattle's right-handed star, Felix Hernandez, in Monday's opener.

It's a duel that fans would have loved to watch in 2006, and a duel that will once again draw plenty of attention in 2009.

And while it's been a long road for Liriano to get back to this point of his career, he seems excited to finally be here.

"I was working really hard last year and the year before," Liriano said. "I was expecting to get where I'm at right now. Thankfully, everything has worked out fine."

Pitching matchup
MIN: LHP Francisco Liriano (6-4, 3.91 ERA in 2008)
This will mark Liriano's first career Opening Day start. The pitcher's velocity and trademark slider might not be the same as they were back in 2006, his breakout rookie season, but Liriano's pitching repertoire can still intimidate hitters. That's particularly true now thanks to his new changeup, which manager Ron Gardenhire described as "Santana-like" this spring. Liriano still needs to be a little more consistent in locating his fastball, but the hope of the organization is that he could once again be a pitcher that can electrify this rotation.

SEA: RHP Felix Hernandez (9-11, 3.45 ERA in 2008)
This will be the second Opening Day start for Hernandez. In 2007, the first time Hernandez started the first game of the season, it ended up being what he still calls his best game. He held the Athletics to four hits and no runs in eight innings, striking out 12. He has made 60 starts since then, but none, in his mind, were as good as that night against Oakland at Safeco Field. Hernandez led the rotation last season with nine wins, just the third time in franchise history a starter didn't win at least 10 games in a season.

Opening Day Fanfare
The Twins will kick off their final home opener inside the Metrodome with some annual traditions. That includes Breakfast on the Plaza where fans who drive through Kirby Puckett Plaza from 6-9 a.m. CT and receive free hot dogs, chips and coffee.

The club will also host an Opening Day rally at the IDS Crystal Court in downtown Minneapolis. Twins Radio Network play-by-play voice John Gordon will emcee the event, which will feature appearances by Twins pitchers Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn and Glen Perkins, manager Ron Gardenhire and Twins Hall of Famer Harmon Killebrew.

Local musician Mick Sterling will perform a free concert on the Plaza beginning at approximately 5:15 p.m.

There will also be a pregame ceremony to honor the Twins late owner, Carl Pohlad, who passed away in January at the age of 93. Pohlad's three sons -- Jim, Bob, and Bill -- will throw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Tidbits
Prior to the game, the Twins will unveil the first series of a season-long countdown of the Top 100 "Metrodome Memories." It will feature videos 100-92 of the most memorable Twins-related moments in the history of the Dome. The series will help count down the final season inside the Metrodome. ... According to Baseball Almanac, the Twins are 2-1 in three previous Opening Day contests against the Mariners.

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Up next
• Tuesday: Twins (RHP Nick Blackburn 11-11, 4.04 ERA in 2008) vs. Mariners (LHP Erik Bedard, 6-4, 3.67 ERA in 2008), 7:10 p.m. CT
• Wednesday: Twins (RHP Kevin Slowey, 12-11, 3.99 ERA in 2008) vs. Mariners (RHP Carlos Silva, 4-15, 6.46 ERA in 2008), 7:10 p.m. CT
• Thursday: Twins (LHP Glen Perkins, 12-4, 4.41 ERA in 2008) vs. Mariners (LHP Jarrod Washburn, 5-14, 4.69 ERA in 2008), 12:10 p.m. CT

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