ST. PETERSBURG -- Coming off a strong Spring Training, expectations were high for Francisco Liriano. The Twins hoped the lefty would be able to put it all together and rebound from a shaky 2011.
Through four starts, he's done anything but that. He's walked batters. He's given up homers. He's not getting deep into games. He hasn't looked confident on the mound, and it's been evident in his pitching.
After giving up five runs for the fourth straight time in Sunday afternoon's 6-2 loss to the Rays at Tropicana Field, Liriano's ERA sits at 11.02. No Twins starter since Carlos Silva in 2006 has given up five runs or more in each of his first four outings to start a season. His struggles have left the Twins perplexed and looking for an answer.
"It just doesn't look like he's pitching with a lot of confidence right now," manager Ron Gardenhire said. "We've said this over and over again, so we're going to step back and see what we need to do to try to help him out and get his confidence back and try to figure some things out with him."
What exactly that means will likely be clarified when the Twins return to Minnesota on Monday. Gardenhire said they will speak with Liriano and pitching coach Rick Anderson, evaluate the situation then decide what's best for him and for the club.
The solution to Liriano's crisis of confidence seems simple: He just needs to have one good outing, throw up some zeroes and he'll regain whatever he's lost. But that proved to be difficult yet again Sunday.
He walked four batters and struck out four in five innings, and he still has more free passes (13) than punchouts (12) on the year. He only gave up three hits in five innings, but he has given up a home run in three of his four starts -- Sunday's came on a well-struck two-run shot by Desmond Jennings. He threw 47 of his 86 pitches for strikes.
Liriano said he hasn't lost his confidence, but he didn't hold back in admitting he hasn't done his job so far this season. He even said he'd be willing to go to the bullpen, if asked, to fix whatever is wrong with him.
"They gave me an opportunity to start. I haven't done my job yet," Liriano said. "If it's not going to get any better, I'm going to do it. I don't have any problems with that. ... I can't locate my pitches -- my fastball, my changeup, nothing's working so far. I'm kind of surprised, too."
Liriano looked good in two quick innings. He worked a 1-2-3 first, then walked the leadoff batter in the second but recovered by inducing a 6-4-3 double play. That was as good as it got for the left-hander, who has yet to pitch more than five innings this season.
"He started getting the ball up. The first couple innings, it was down," Twins catcher Joe Mauer said of Liriano. "He just started making some mistakes, and that team over there made him pay for it. ... It's frustrating for me as a catcher, trying to help him through that, but he'll get there."
He loaded the bases in the third with two walks and a hit batsman and gave up two runs on consecutive sacrifice flies by Jennings and Ben Zobrist. The Rays scored another run via the sacrifice fly in the fourth inning. Evan Longoria bounced a double off Tropicana Field's B-ring catwalk, moved to third on Jeff Keppinger's flyout to right field then scored on B.J. Upton's sacrifice fly to left. That put the Rays ahead, 3-0, despite having only one hit.
"We had good situational hitting," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Guys weren't trying to do too much and score their own run. Scoring a run with outs is always a great concept, so I was happy we did that."
The Twins got two runs back in the sixth on Ryan Doumit's two-run single into center field. They had other opportunities, but nothing to show for them.
Josh Willingham's season-opening 15-game hitting streak came to an end. The Twins went 1-for-8 with runners in scoring position after going 0-for-7 in those situations Saturday. They made solid contact and hit line drives in a few of those situations, but the Rays were in position to reel them in.
"I think it's just frustrating, period, not getting them in. We hit some balls hard today and didn't have any luck," Mauer said. "We've got to get those runs in, and it's frustrating."
But the most frustrating, concerning, mystifying part of Sunday's game wasn't the offense. It was Liriano, whose struggles have reached a point where the Twins simply have to address them.
"We've seen it. You can see him start kind of moping around a little bit on the mound," Gardenhire said. "He's a good pitcher. He's a really good pitcher with great stuff. We just have to figure out a way to get his confidence back up there where he commands everything -- good situations or bad.
"It's a work in progress. It's been tough. He's had a tough start here after a really, really good spring. We're kind of baffled right now. We'll see what we can do."