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Club's fifth-starter role goes to Liriano

Club's fifth-starter role goes to Liriano

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Twins manager Ron Gardenhire has yet to officially name his fifth starter, but the winner of that competition has stolen a bit of the skipper's thunder by revealing it himself.

After throwing six shutout innings against the Pirates on Tuesday, Francisco Liriano said that he's been informed he will start against the White Sox in Chicago on April 9 -- meaning that he's the club's fifth starter.

"I was very happy with it," Liriano said of finding out he earned the role. "I want to be a starter and they give me the chance. I just can't wait to go out there and do my job."

Gardenhire wouldn't comment on the fifth starter, although pitching coach Rick Anderson confirmed it. It's really not a surprise, since Gardenhire has continued to say that Liriano is the leading candidate for the fifth spot, and the left-hander did nothing but solidify that fact in his final Spring Training outing.

Liriano allowed just three hits against the Pirates on Tuesday and struck out eight while throwing 83 pitches in his six innings.

"Maybe he named it because he probably could," Gardenhire said. "He probably took a big lead right there. We haven't named him as our fifth starter. We just said he's the leading candidate and throwing it better than anyone else. We haven't announced that yet officially."

Gardenhire was scheduled to meet with his coaching staff and general manager Bill Smith following Tuesday's contest. So an official announcement on the fifth starter from the club will likely come Wednesday morning.

In addition to saying that he'll pitch the fifth game of the season, Liriano said that he will stay behind in Fort Myers to pitch in a Minor League contest on Sunday -- his scheduled day to throw. He'll then fly to Anaheim to join the Twins for their opening series against the Angels.

One reason the Twins have likely waited this long to name Liriano as their fifth starter is that they had been exploring the idea of using him in the closer role. Gardenhire indicated recently that of all the pitchers on his staff, Liriano is the one who clearly possessed the stuff to be a closer.

Liriano appeared to show why his name was raised in closer discussions during the second inning when he issued two of his three walks. With one out, Liriano walked two straight batters to get himself in a bit of a jam. But he was able to work his way out of the trouble by getting the first batter to hit a ball right back at the pitcher and then struck out catcher Jason Jaramillo.

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"That's why people always say he can be a closer because a guy like him can pitch himself out of trouble," Gardenhire said. "Not a lot of pitchers have the ability to do that -- get in trouble and strike people out. That's what a lot of closers can do and that's why his name came up a lot through the media and baseball people about a closer. He has that kind of stuff."

Last weekend, Gardenhire said that the club will go with a closer-by-committee for the start of the season. But Gardenhire admitted Tuesday that the coaching staff and front office had thought long and hard about the possibility of using Liriano in the role.

In the end, it wasn't something that Liriano wanted to do, and the club felt that the best thing was to keep him in a starting role.

"He can also go deep into a game and get you wins that way," Gardenhire said. "You have to want to do it in the first place to be a closer. And when you finally get a guy back with his confidence, that closer role doesn't always leave you confident after games and you have to be able to blow things off. We've thought about it deep and long and hard. [Anderson] is right with me, leaving him in that role."

Liriano's confidence is clearly high following a strong spring in which he posted a 2-0 record and 2.70 ERA in six appearances (five starts). He allowed just five walks over 20 innings while striking out a total of 30 batters.

The pitcher said he was relieved to stay in a starting role, even exhibiting a bit of nervous laughter when asked if he was glad not to have to worry about the closer idea any more.

"I've always been a starter," Liriano said. "That's what I want to be. I just want to stay like that."

Now Liriano will try to continue to build off the success he's had this spring in a starting role. He hopes that perhaps this will be the start of him returning to the form he had before undergoing Tommy John surgery in November 2006. When asked when the last time he felt this good in spring, Liriano said it was at the start of that '06 season.

"Last year and the year before, I don't think I was feeling that great," Liriano said. "I think '06 was the last time I was feeling this good."

Increased confidence is something that Minnesota has seen from Liriano, but Gardenhire seemed just as pleased on Tuesday to see that his starter was able to get deep into a game. Unlike previous years, Liriano said he's working to get ground balls and not trying to strike every batter out, and it's shown in the way he's pitched.

"It looked like he was really winging it up there pretty good and it didn't look like max effort either," Gardenhire said. "It looked like he was locating some balls and not max effort on every pitch."

And so for now, consider the Liriano as a closer discussion put to rest.

"I know all the people say this guy can be your closer, but he can also be a top-of-the-line starter, too," Gardenhire said. "That's hard to find, too. His confidence is at a high right now, too, which is something we didn't have last year. I really the way he's throwing the ball right now."

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

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