Having made his Major League Debut in 2005, Liriano had just 23 2/3 innings under his belt coming into the 2006 season. Ron Gardenhire put Liriano on his Opening Day roster, but the talented lefty was set to begin out of the bullpen. He made his season debut in the second game, throwing two innings of relief against the Toronto Blue Jays. Minnesota won that game 13-4, and Liriano tallied his first three strikeouts of the season.
From there, Gardenhire used Liriano mainly for late-inning work. Across 12 games, Liriano pitched 22 1/3 innings of relief work, compiling a 3.22 ERA and impressive 32/4 K/BB mark. Of the eight earned runs given up, five came in a three-inning clunker against the Detroit Tigers. Minnesota lost that game 18-1, and it was the lone stain on Liriano’s relief work.
Then the switch happened. On May 19, 2006, Francisco Liriano took the ball to start for the Twins against the Milwaukee Brewers. He didn’t relieve a game again the rest of the way. Against the Brewers, Liriano went five strong innings giving up just one run on two hits while striking out five. A few turns later, this time against the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 16, 2006, Liriano punched out double-digit batters for the first time in his career. Notching 11 strikeouts against the Buccos, Liriano improved to 6-1 on the season, and his ERA sat at just 2.16.
Facing the Brewers again on July 2, 2016, Liriano set a new career-high in strikeouts with 12. Throwing eight shutout innings, Liriano pushed his ERA down to 1.99. After a couple more wins, Liriano then put a bow on his early work with a 10 and 12 strikeout performance against Cleveland and Detroit, respectively.
Then things changed. Making a start against the Tigers on August 7, 2006, Liriano threw just 67 pitches while allowing four runs on ten hits before being lifted. He was scratched the start prior with forearm inflammation and then lifted against Detroit with what was called a left elbow injury. After an MRI revealed only inflammation on July 31, Liriano was set for another one and told reporters he was more scared this time, saying, “it bothered me. It’s getting worse you know.” Liriano returned for a start on September 13, 2006, but lasted just 27 pitches before his season was over. He had suggested hearing a pop in his elbow. The 1st place Minnesota Twins would be without one of their top arms, ultimately falling to the Oakland Athletics in the American League Division Series.
Discussing the MRI’s Liriano had undergone, Twins General Manager Terry Ryan said, "The MRI came back exactly the same as the previous one. He has a ligament strain, but there is no structural damage. That's the good news.” On September 15, 2006, surgery was not the planned course of action. Fast forward less than a month, and on November 6, 2006, Francisco Liriano underwent Tommy John surgery.
Working on getting back from his procedure, Liriano returned to the mound for Minnesota on April 13, 2008. It was his first start in more than a year, and the rust showed. He allowed four runs on six hits and didn’t make it through the 5th inning. Throwing his fastball at just 91.9 mph, he’d lost nearly 3 mph off the 94.7 mph he averaged in 2006. The All-Star and third place Rookie of the Year finisher didn’t look the same and ultimately never would.
Those 121 innings from a 22-year-old Liriano in 2006 were among the highlights of the Minnesota Twins during the 2000s. Paired with Johan Santana, Ron Gardenhire appeared to have a duo of lefties that could mow down even the best opposing offenses. Playing 12 more seasons and putting up a 4.28 ERA is hardly something to scoff at, but there’s no denying that this is a talent you have to wonder what could have been. Liriano doesn’t have a shot at the Hall of Fame, but maybe he would have. Perhaps the Twins wouldn’t have flipped him for Eduardo Escobar in 2012. His career was solid but ultimately defined by a “what if?”
Outside of Liriano as a player on his own, it's worth wondering how the 2006 Minnesota Twins season would've ended had he been a healthy part of the Postseason rotation. The Twins were ultimately swept by a good Oakland Athletics team, but they had to start Boof Bonser in game 2 and turned to Brad Radke in game 3. The Twins came in with home field advantage and have not won a Postseason game dating back to 2004. Just another part of the what could've been story.
Do you remember back to that first season of Francisco Liriano? What did you think the Twins had in him? What are some of your favorite memories?