Commentary

Road to recovery has been painfully slow for Liriano

Originally Published: March 7, 2008
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The future of the Minnesota Twins' franchise watched telenovelas (Spanish-speaking soap operas) for entertainment and comfort; he went out to eat, often alone, to avoid a kitchen he could not navigate; and to break up the monotony of dining at local restaurants, twice a week he'd savor the taste of home-cooked Venezuelan dinners prepared by a teammate's wife.

His life was often filled with loneliness and isolation in the months after he had Tommy John surgery in November 2006. But "The Franchise" (that's what Johan Santana used to call him) was anything but that when, in April 2007, thoughts raced through his mind about his career. In a thank-God-Minnesota-fans-didn't-know-this moment, Francisco Liriano revealed that last year he feared he might not pitch again.

[+] EnlargeFrancisco Liriano
AP Photo/Steven SenneFrancisco Liriano didn't pitch during the entire 2007 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in the fall of '06.
"Oh yeah, at first when I started playing catch, it hurt so bad I said, 'I'm done playing baseball,'" Liriano said earlier this week at the Twins' spring training complex.

That's right. Liriano said the foreign feeling in his prized left arm left him doubtful he could ever make it back to pitch for the Twins. His official throwing program began in April 2007 -- from 45 feet away, on flat ground, playing catch -- and for a full month, Liriano said, the pain in his surgically repaired left elbow caused him serious concern.

"Thank God," he said, "a month after that it started getting better. I was scared for a while, pretty scared."

He didn't tell anyone. Every day he spoke with his mother (with whom he still lives in the Dominican Republic during the offseason). But she could not visit him -- she was taking care of one of his older brothers, who had a foot ailment.

"I was really bored," he said, adding he averaged three telenovelas a day.

Living alone in a condo right down the street from the Twins' complex, Liriano began his days at 8 a.m. with minor league rehab coordinator Lanning Tucker, and ended his days by 1 or 2 p.m. That left enough spare time to watch "Dame Chocolate" or "Tropico," which is filmed in Liriano's native country.

Alejandro Machado rehabbed alongside Liriano, and probably helped Liriano keep his sanity. It was Machado's wife who cooked arepas, a Venezuelan specialty, and rice and beans for the two men. Even though Liriano is Dominican, he appreciated the homestyle cooking. And it was Machado, Tucker says, who kept up the spirits of not just Liriano, but all of the players who were rehabbing.

"Machado kept things light," Tucker said, sitting at a picnic table at the minor league complex, where he was the person most responsible for overseeing Liriano's rehab. "[Machado's] just a great personality with his smile. He might have been having a difficult time -- everyone does when they rehab -- but you never knew it with him."

Tucker says Machado -- a non-roster invitee infielder with the Twins this spring -- and Liriano would gossip about their favorite telenovelas, a hot topic when they first arrived each morning.

"Sometimes we'd watch telenovelas together," said Machado, bashfully laughing at the mention. "In the morning if we had time we'd say, 'Hey, did you see it yesterday?'"

Talk about the Spanish soap operas was brief because most of the time was spent working on the repair of their bodies. "People don't realize how hard it is to come back from torn UCL [ulnar collateral ligament] injuries," Tucker said.

The Twins were secure in their belief that Liriano should move like molasses through his rehab. Why rush The Franchise? It took three months for Liriano just to go from throwing from 45 feet on flat ground to 90 feet. He didn't step on a mound until September, and even then, the number of throws was limited. They tried to slow down and smooth out his violent delivery, asking him to double-pump his leg as a balancing tool.

Minnesota did not want to mess around with the 24-year-old lefty. After all, it was Liriano, then a rookie, who outpitched Roger Clemens in The Rocket's 2006 season debut with Houston. On Clemens' banner day, Liriano -- the pitcher who threw for the other team -- struck out seven in a 4-2 win.

Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson points to that day as one in which he realized Liriano reveled in competitive pressure. But that competitiveness has a cost. Liriano, a dynamite prospect because he could throw fastballs in the upper 90s and combine a 90-91 mph slider that made big leaguers look into the Minnesota dugout with befuddlement, snapped that slider too much for his own good.

It's the best slider I've ever seen. But it puts a lot of strain on your arm. He's got a changeup that's wonderful; it's close to a [Johan] Santana changeup.

-- Twins pitching coach Rick Anderson, about Francisco Liriano

He snapped it so much, he snapped the ligament in his left arm. What his comeback will eventually be judged on is not whether he hits 97 mph -- relevant to an extent, of course -- but whether he can psychologically adjust to moving away from his most devastating pitch.

"It's the best slider I've ever seen," said Anderson, who'd like to see Liriano cut down from 30 to 10 sliders thrown a game. "But it puts a lot of strain on your arm. He's got a changeup that's wonderful; it's close to a Santana changeup."

That's a bold statement, because Santana's changeup is widely considered the best in the big leagues. That's how much the organization believes in -- and sees -- Liriano's talent. When former teammate Torii Hunter was recently asked which pitcher -- Santana or Liriano -- he'd take at the same age, he chose Liriano, citing his slider.

With Santana gone (Liriano read about the trade in a Dominican newspaper), now the expectations and the pressure engulf Liriano, who gained up to 20 pounds during his rehab. With so much hype, it's easy to forget he has made only 20 major league starts, and that he's 13-5 with a 2.74 ERA in his career, striking out 177 and walking 39 in 144 2/3 innings pitched.

"I don't pay attention to it," Liriano said.

The loneliness and isolation that Liriano often felt last season has dissipated. Yet even now that he's surrounded by teammates, fans and the media, he's still alone -- even if symbolically -- as the savior of a franchise that has entirely adjusted its roster in the past four months.

It was clear this week, when the beat writers who cover the team either stayed behind or double-staffed the road game to cover Liriano's throwing session. A large number of fans looked captivated as they watched Liriano and the other pitchers take pitchers' fielding practice -- or PFP, as it's known. With Livan Hernandez as the only recognizable face on the Twins' rotation, it is now up to Liriano to take the place of a mentor and hope he can fulfill the enormous expectations that await him.

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.