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Twins LHP Liriano to start season in minors

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Francisco Liriano finished spring training strong, striking out seven Pirates. The Twins sent him to the minors anyway.

Liriano held Pittsburgh to one run in five innings Friday before learning he will start the season in the minor leagues, and the Pirates beat the Twins 3-1.

Manager Ron Gardenhire said he wanted the left-handed Liriano to get at least two starts -- one with Class A Fort Myers and one with Triple-A Rochester -- to improve his conditioning and his fastball. At that point, the team will consider calling him up.

After an elbow injury abruptly ended his stellar rookie season, Liriano had Tommy John ligament replacement surgery and didn't pitch in 2007.

Liriano walked two and gave up three hits, including a solo home run by Jose Bautista in the second.

"He's been fine," Gardenhire said. "He's progressed. He progressed again today. His slider is fine. He's pretty close, but he's been out for a year. This is the right way to handle the situation."

Liriano, who went 12-3 with a 2.16 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2006, said he was ready for big-league action but understood the decision. He finished the spring with a 2-2 record and a 4.02 ERA in five starts.

"I'll do whatever they want me to do," Liriano said. "My arm feels great. I don't feel any soreness. The first couple of games, I was trying to take it easy. I threw a lot better today. I was working on all of my pitches."

For the Pirates, Bautista went 2-for-3 and scored two runs. They suffered a minor setback before the game when left-hander Paul Maholm was scratched from his scheduled start because of a stiff back.

"I wanted to hold him back," manager John Russell said. "We'll know more in the next couple of days."

Maholm, coming off his best start of the spring, will move from the third to the fifth spot in the rotation. Phil Dumatrait, an offseason waiver claim, filled in and pitched three shutout innings Friday.

By holding Liriano back, the Twins gave a temporary rotation spot to Nick Blackburn, who will start on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Angels. The only other matter left unsettled was the status of right-hander Scott Baker, who will pitch in a minor league game on Sunday in Fort Myers while the rest of the team works out at the Metrodome.

If Baker passes his test, he'll grab the fifth spot in the rotation. Right-hander Brian Bass, a long reliever, could start in an emergency. He took the loss Friday by giving up the winning run in the seventh.