By Jon Krawczynski, AP Baseball Writer
MINNEAPOLIS -- A broad smile creased Francisco Liriano's face as he spoke about his winter in the Dominican Republic, where he reunited with a long lost friend.
In his first three seasons after Tommy John surgery, the Minnesota Twins left-hander lost touch with his slider, once one of the most feared and unhittable pitches in the big leagues.
In his fourth offseason since the procedure, Liriano was finally able to rear back and let it fly. For the first time in a long time, the bite was in the slider and not in his elbow.
While pitching in winter ball in his native Dominican this offseason, Liriano started to feel like the All-Star power pitcher he was in 2006, not the wayward youngster of the past three seasons who looked lost without his favorite pitch. He went 3-1 with a 0.49 ERA in seven postseason appearances for Leones del Escogido, including a one-hit, 10-strikeout, five-inning masterpiece in the championship game.
"That's what I thought. This is me," Liriano said at TwinsFest in January. "This is how I know how to pitch. Not worrying about anything, about any hitter. Just go out there and throw first-pitch strike and locate my fastball."
He says that fastball was clocking at 95-96 mph. But the biggest difference was getting his knee-buckling slider back, and his confidence swelled because of it.
"If he gets that and he gets that confidence going, he might be that true No. 1 that every team needs," first baseman Justin Morneau said.
As the Twins' pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Fort Myers, Fla., the team and Liriano hope his winter ball performance was a sign of things to come.
"You just have to wait and see how he carries it up to here," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "It's one thing pitching down there and it's another thing pitching up here. But the reports are that he's really throwing the ball well. He could be one of those ace in the holes if he can come back and bounce back, keep his arm up and the ball down."
After going 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA in 2006, Liriano developed arm problems and missed all of 2007 with the dreaded ligament replacement surgery. He went 6-4 with a 3.91 ERA in 2008, but he didn't have the same juice in his fastball and break in his slider that he did before.
Last year was even worse. Liriano went 5-13 with a 5.80 ERA, leading some to wonder if a power pitcher like him could ever fully recover. Trying to make the transition from overpowering opposing hitters to relying on location and guile to get them out was exhausting.
"I think I overdo things last year trying to get better," Liriano said. "I think I was too tired and my body was too tired."
So Liriano went back home to the Dominican and tried to relax. He worked out, but tried to pace himself to avoid burnout. It worked.
"He killed everybody," said Twins second baseman Alexi Casilla, whose Dominican team lost to Liriano's in the league championship.
At the team's annual fan festival, Liriano was walking around with a hop in his step and a smile on his face that has not been seen in some time.
"It helped me a lot," he said of his success in the Dominican. "I got my confidence back. I feel really good physically and mentally. I'm really focusing to get to spring training so I'm ready."
If Liriano can get even close to what he once was, what a boon it would be for the Twins. The defending AL Central champions lack a true No. 1 starter, with veterans Carl Pavano and Scott Baker the early favorites for the post. Steady Nick Blackburn and the promising Kevin Slowey, who is coming off wrist surgery, are back as well -- but nobody with the kind of stuff that Liriano had at his peak.
"That's what we're all hoping for is he will be a dominant pitcher," general manager Bill Smith said.
There are still plenty of questions to be answered. Liriano was lights-out in the Dominican, which is one of the better winter ball leagues around. But how will that translate to the pros? And will he be able to stay healthy for an entire season?
The picture will start getting clearer on Monday, when Liriano starts easing his way back into facing big league hitters.
"We said a few years ago, this guy is potentially a No. 1 guy," Gardenhire said. "Everyone's always looking for a No. 1 guy. I don't want to put pressure and say he's a No. 1 guy. He's had No. 1 stuff and he's had No. 1 success before. So there you have it. You just never know what's going to happen. It could be very entertaining."