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Twins' Liriano Faces A Tough Road Back

Again and again, Francisco Liriano jogged along the warning track, working up a sweat in the Florida sun.

Each time he finished a lap, the Dominican pitcher stopped and looked toward the diamond with a longing gaze, watching his Minnesota Twins teammates work out at spring training.

"The Franchise" dominated hitters for four months last year. Now, after having major surgery on his left elbow in the offseason, all Liriano can do is watch.

He will miss at least a year _ and he won't have much company in Fort Myers once the Twins head north on March 31.

"This is the easy part, with us down here," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "The hard part's going to be when we leave. That's going to be very difficult, so he has a long road and a very hard road and it's going to take a solid person to get it done. Hopefully he's that person to get it done and maintain because it's not going to be easy."

For the first four months of his rookie season, everything came easy for Liriano.

He burst onto the scene as a 22-year-old last May, humiliating hitters with a dazzling combination of 97 mph fastballs, knee-buckling changeups and one of the best sliders in the game.

The fun really started when Liriano left the bullpen for the rotation on May 19.

He went 11-3 with a 1.92 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 98 2-3 innings as a starter and was one of the leading candidates for AL Rookie of the Year when he showed up at the All-Star game in July.

But the torque generated by a whirling delivery was too much for his elbow to take. Eventually it broke down, and Liriano pitched through pain for about a month before finally letting the trainers know something was wrong.

By then it was too late. Liriano had Tommy John surgery in November and he'll spend most of this season rehabbing in Florida, with only sparse contact with the teammates he so enjoys.

"It's going to be tough," Liriano said. "Everybody wants to play. I just have to be patient and do what I have to do to get better and be ready for next season."

Patience has never been Liriano's strong suit.

The first sign of arm trouble popped up in August, when he spent a month on the disabled list with a strained ligament in his elbow. He rushed himself back for a start in September, but lasted just two innings.

As Liriano begins his rehab, the Twins are as concerned with the youngster's ability to endure mentally as they are about the chances of him returning to full physical strength.

"I do worry about that," general manager Terry Ryan said. "I was a player once and was hurt too much and it's not a good feeling. You just don't feel like you're part of the organization."

The isolation can be difficult to handle.

"When we leave here, there's going to be a wake-up call and he's going to be back here and it's going to be very hard for him," Gardenhire said. "We'll see him up in the Twin Cities a few times throughout the course of the year. But for the most part, he's really going to have to suck it up because this is not an environment that he's used to."

Veterans such as Carlos Silva and Johan Santana are keeping a close eye on Liriano and plan to maintain contact throughout the season.

"That's what we have to do, Santana, me, make sure he feels comfortable and make sure he's part of the team," Silva said. "I know how he's feeling right now. Maybe he's laughing and he's playing around and hanging out like nothing's going on. But I know inside he's frustrated."

That much was clear on Monday, when Liriano finished one of his runs and stopped at the bullpen to watch Santana throw. He leaned over the fence and just rested there quietly while Santana fired away, wishing he could be right by his side.

"I'm enjoying this, hanging out with them and working out with them," Liriano said. "I'm having fun so far, but it's going to be hard to see them leave."

When he returns fo spring training in 2008, they might see a much different pitcher. Gardenhire said the Twins will ask Liriano to consider tweaking his delivery, a twisting motion that ends with his back to the hitter.

"The big thing is how much can an arm handle with that arm speed he has, and we all saw the violent throwing motion where he spins in a circle," Gardenhire said. "Will he get back to that? Can he get back to that or should he? Those are all questions we have."

Liriano also will likely have to rely less heavily on his trademark slider that puts so much stress on his elbow.

"I'll do whatever they want me to do," he said. "I just want to get back out there."