PITTSBURGH -- Since returning to the rotation on May 30, Francisco Liriano has looked like a different pitcher for the Twins.
He looks much more like the pitcher who dominated in Spring Training than the one who posted a 9.45 ERA in his first five starts of the year.
Liriano was it again against the Pirates on Wednesday, as he continued his impressive run, turning in his longest outing of the year, and Josh Willingham hit a go-ahead homer in the eighth to lead the Twins to a 2-1 win.
Liriano was sharp, as the left-hander allowed one run on just four hits and two walks over 6 2/3 innings. It was another solid outing from Liriano, who has a 2.67 ERA over his last five starts since rejoining the rotation after being demoted to the bullpen after a slow start to the season. He also has 35 strikeouts in 30 1/3 innings over that stretch.
"It's better location and I'm getting more swings and misses and more ground balls," Liriano said. "It's all about location. I'm getting more consistent and throwing the ball over the plate without trying to strike everybody out."
His performance was enough for Pirates manager Clint Hurdle to compare him to great left-handers such as Hall of Famer Steve Carlton and former Twins ace Johan Santana.
"He's got one of those sliders like Steve Carlton had, where out of his hand it looks like a strike and then the last five feet, you just lose it," Hurdle said. "But he's thrown a lot of strikes. We tried to show some patience. Couple of 1-0 counts, and we got pitches to hit, that were center-cut, that were in the middle of the plate. We didn't hit them. But he pitched an exceptional ballgame. Reminded me of the game when I had some questions beforehand when Santana was going to pitch."
Liriano, though, was saddled with the no-decision, as he gave up his lone run in the seventh on a sacrifice fly from pinch-hitter Rod Barajas with the bases loaded. Denard Span made a spectacular diving play to rob Barajas of a go-ahead hit, and it proved crucial, as reliever Jared Burton was able to get Jose Tabata to ground out to first to end the inning.
"It was amazing," Liriano said of Span's catch. "That was a game-saver right there. He covers a lot of ground out there with [Ben] Revere."
The Twins answered quickly to retake the lead in the eighth, when Willingham crushed his 14th homer of the season. The solo shot came on an 0-1 fastball from Jason Grilli with one out and gave Minnesota the lead for good.
"It felt really good," Willingham said. "[Liriano] did a good job tonight, obviously, and it's been several starts in a row he's done really well. We just haven't been able to score him very many runs. So it was a hard-fought game and definitely a good win for us."
It was another big homer from Willingham, which caused manager Ron Gardenhire to joke that his teammates were all calling his shot from the dugout.
"You're gonna have about eight guys saying they called that shot," Gardenhire said. "It's probably the most obvious call in our clubhouse that Willingham is gonna hit that homer. They're all taking credit. So you'll see a lot of guys with ice on their arms for patting themselves on the back. But Willingham has been doing really well for us."
It came after Minnesota got on the board early against left-hander Erik Bedard with a two-out RBI single from Trevor Plouffe in the first inning after Willingham doubled and Justin Morneau walked. Following Plouffe's hit, Brian Dozier walked to load the bases, but Jamey Carroll lined out to Bedard to end the rally.
It was all they could muster against Bedard, who was otherwise solid, allowing one run on four hits and two walks while striking out seven over six innings.
But the Twins did just enough, as Burton tossed a scoreless eighth before handing it off to left-hander Glen Perkins, who picked up his third career save with a scoreless ninth inning. Perkins served as closer with Matt Capps out due to inflammation in his right shoulder.
"Those guys have done a heck of a job for us," Gardenhire said. "Our bullpen has not been the problem. It's about getting the ball to them in the right situations. Cappy is out right now with the shoulder thing but we have to guys in Perk and Burton who can close."