MINNEAPOLIS - Francisco Liriano makes the first postseason start of his career Wednesday night, four years later than anyone would have thought during his magical summer of 2006.
"Go out there, pitch and have fun with it," Liriano said Tuesday morning of his approach. "I am happy they gave me an opportunity this year, so I just am having fun."
There had not been a lot of that before this season.
As a rookie in 2006, the lefthander gave the Twins one of the best 1-2 pitching combos in baseball, with Liriano, dubbed "The Franchise" locally, coming after Johan Santana.
But Liriano, who was 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA, had elbow problems and made only two appearances after July 28 that season, missing the playoffs (the Twins lost to the Athletics that postseason). He had Tommy John surgery, causing him to miss all of 2007, with 2008 and last season being outright struggles. Liriano was moved to the bullpen in late August 2009, finishing the season 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA. He appeared out of the bullpen in Game 1 against the Yankees, allowing an earned run in two innings.
But Liriano, who turns 27 Oct. 26, came back strong this season, going 14-10 with a 3.62 ERA (he went 0-1 with a 3.46 ERA in two starts against the Yankees).
"He deserves it and he has been throwing great," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He has thrown great for us all year. I will give him the ball and let him go at these guys and hopefully, he will handle the situation."
Liriano has had an up-and-down season with impressive highs and head-scratching lows. He was as good as any pitcher in baseball in April - 3-0 with a 0.93 ERA - but followed that up with a rough May, going 2-3, 5.15. He was 3-1, 2.97 in July and 3-0, 3.68 in August, but wasn't good down the stretch, going 2-3, 4.59 in September.
Still, the Liriano his teammates expect to see is the one they saw the majority of this season. They believe they have the pitcher to match Yankees ace CC Sabathia.
"With your ace, you want strikeout stuff and he's got that," third baseman Nick Punto said of Liriano, who had 201 strikeouts and 58 walks in 191 2/3 innings. "He's very capable of having that electric, strikeout stuff. He hopefully just relaxes, settles down and pitches well for us."
Said centerfielder Denard Span: "He took an unbelievable step [this year]. I think everybody saw it the first month of the season when he came out and was arguably the best pitcher in the league and he pretty much maintained that throughout the season. I think he's just getting back to how he was in 2006."
Forty-year-old designated hitter Jim Thome, who made his postseason debut with the 1995 Indians, said Liriano has the arsenal to succeed in October.
"I don't think you go up to him and tell him anything," Thome said. "He's got the stuff that's done a great job for us all year. We rely on him, we believe in him, we want him to be in this situation."
Four long years after an electric debut, Liriano finally is.