Francisco Liriano stood on the mound at the Metrodome on the afternoon of September 13, 2006, his hands on his knees and his head down. After missing a month of action for an injury, which the team described as ‘forearm inflammation,' he had finally returned to the mound. Now, after just two innings, and on his 27th pitch of the day, Liriano heard a pop in his elbow.
After making six appearances for the Twins during September of 2005, Liriano joined the rotation as a full-time starter with his start on May 19, 2006. From there, he was nothing short of spectacular. The promising lefty—acquired in the trade that sent A.J. Pierzynski to the San Francisco Giants and netted the Twins closer Joe Nathan too—could throw bullets. He would end that rookie season with a 12-3 record, 144 strikeouts, and a 2.16 ERA in just 16 starts (plus 12 appearances out of the bullpen).
But Liriano pitched just twice in all of August and September combined that year. And then came the pop that would not just end his marvelous rookie season, but also put a sudden halt to what looked to be a promising future.
For the Twins, Liriano, and for fans, the hope was that everything would blow over. Everybody involved hoped rehab and rest would do the trick, and that hope continued until the first week of November when Tommy John surgery entered the picture.
There are certain words no pitcher wants to hear when it comes to injuries, and the three biggest ones are: Tommy John surgery. The surgery, in which a ligament in the elbow is replaced with a tendon from elsewhere in the body, was first done in 1974. While it was becoming a more common and more successful operation when Liriano went under the knife on November 6 that year, it would nonetheless put him out for at least the 2007 season, there would be rigorous rehab involved, and nothing was guaranteed.
In 2008, Liriano arrived in Fort Myers, Florida, for spring training. He was finally back. That spring, Liriano told ESPN that the surgery had him fearing the worst.
"At first when I started playing catch, it hurt so bad I said, 'I'm done playing baseball.'"
But on April 13, 2008, Liriano was in Kansas City on the mound against the Royals. That day, the prized lefty (who was suddenly 24-years old) struggled with control. The trend continued through three April starts before Liriano was demoted to the minor leagues. He would return that season and fair better, but Liriano struggled again in 2009 to the tune of a 5.80 ERA. Everybody wondered if the prodigy of 2006 would ever resurface.
In 2010, Liriano posted a 3.62 ERA and struck out 201 batters. He was finally back.
Looking for Liriano's resurgence to continue in 2011, fans had been disappointed to watch the 27-year old enter the game against the White Sox on Tuesday night with a 9.13 ERA, 18 walks, and 18 strikeouts in five starts.
And then Liriano did the most improbable thing: he tossed a no-hitter.
There was some luck involved with some good defensive plays and double play balls. That's baseball. It wasn't the most visually pleasing line with 123 pitches thrown or his 6 walks allowed. That's baseball too. And it certainly wasn't probable as the struggling Liriano, who entered the game with a league-high ERA, faced a demotion to the bullpen with a poor outing.
On Tuesday night, Francisco Liriano became just the second current pitcher in baseball—joining the Marlins' Anibal Sanchez—to throw a no-hitter after Tommy John surgery. As Liriano stood with his head down on that September day in 2006, his career stood in jeopardy and a no-hit feat seemed just as improbable as it did when he stepped to the mound in Chicago.
That's what makes baseball, and this improbable feat, so great.