After starting the season 17-24, the Twins moved 22-year-old lefty über-prospect Francisco Liriano from the bullpen into the rotation on May 19. They then played .500 ball over their next twenty games before catching fire in mid-June, winning 18 of 19 games, 15 of which came against National League teams, specifically the Dodgers and the four weakest teams in the NL Central. After dropping a pair of series to the Royals and Rangers, they again went on a tear after the All-Star Break, winning 12 of their first 14 games of the second half, a stretch that concluded with a three-game sweep of the White Sox.
Those streaks obviously weren't all Liriano's doing, but the decision to move Liriano into the rotation was a lynchpin for the team, which started the season with Tony Batista at third, Juan Castro at shortstop and with plans to carry Ruben Sierra. Not long after Twins got wise on Liriano, they dumped Batista (.236/.303/.388), Castro (.231/.258/.308), Sierra (5 for 28 with one extra base hit and four walks) and Kyle Lohse (7.07 ERA), replacing them with Nick Punto (a surprising .307/.383/.405), Jason Bartlett (finally living up to his minor league track record with a .342/.409/.447 line), Jason Tyner (ditto, hitting .314/.343/.346 in place of the injured Shannon Stewart's .293/.347/.368 in left field), and, of course, Liriano (12-3, 2.19 ERA, 10.74 K/9). Add in a tremendous two months from Justin Morneau (.387/.415/.719 with 18 homers in June and July) and you get a Twins team that went 42-17 (.712) from May 19 until July 28.
It was that later date when Liriano suffered a hard luck loss against the Tigers after which he complained of pain in his pitching elbow. He's made just one abbreviated start since then and the Twins have gone 18-13 in his absence. That's a .580 record, an almost exact match with the team's overall record, but a considerable drop from the dominant two months in which Liriano took the hill every fifth day, and not enough to push them past the White Sox, who currently sport a .586 winning percentage.
Once again, Liriano has been the lynchpin as the team has started to regress without him. Brad Radke, who has said he will retire after this season, has been pitching with a torn labrum and a shredded rotator cuff, figuring there's no reason to save his arm. It worked in August, when he posted a 2.48 ERA, but his shoulder is deteriorating faster than expected and didn't respond to his latest cortisone shot. As a result, Radke won't start Saturday, and could be done for the season, and thus his career. That's bad news for a rotation that's still without Liriano and is still carrying tonight's starter Carlos Silva, who has a 6.50 ERA on the year. While rookies Boof Bonser and Sunday's starter Matt Garza appear to be rounding into shape, Scott Baker, who will take Radke's turn tomorrow, has been on the Richmond express all year and sports a 6.93 ERA in 12 starts.
To make matters worse, the offense is experiencing some correction, with MVP candidates Morneau and Joe Mauer cooling off and Punto coming back to earth. It doesn't help matters that Luis Castillo sprained his ankle and could miss the entire series this weekend. Thus, despite the continued excellence of Johan Santana and the bullpen (which has added dominant rookie Pat Neshek to the Big Three of Nathan, Rincon and LOOGY Dennys Reyes), the recent surge of surprise clean-up hitter Michael Cuddyer (.311/.398/.594 in August), and last night's addition of Phil Nevin (who will replace the Rondell White's miserable .215/.242/.308 at DH), I'm just not convinced that this team can overtake the White Sox, despite the two teams being tied in the loss column, without getting Liriano back, and soon.
The latest report from Will Carroll is that Liriano is throwing "sneaker sessions" (meaning he's throwing off a mound, but in sneakers rather than cleats, the unproven theory being that the reduced traction also reduces effort and strain on the arm) and could return mid-month. Unless Bonser and Garza maintain their improvements and Nevin hits like he did in Chicago rather than the way he didn't in Texas, that might not be soon enough