MINNEAPOLIS (AP) - Francisco Liriano appeared to have turned the corner last season after a few tough years coming back from Tommy John surgery.
The lefty who the Minnesota Twins were hoping would continue to blossom into a much-needed ace has been anything but that during the first month of the 2011 season.
At snowy Target Field, Ben Zobrist tripled and drove in three runs Wednesday night as the Tampa Bay Rays pounded Liriano in an 8-2 victory.
Temperatures dipped below 40 degrees during the game and flurries turned the ballpark into a late-April snow globe. But the cold weather didn't bother the boys from the Sunshine State, who won for the 11th time in 14 games to jump over .500 for the first time this season.
Not even Santa Claus and a Christmas jingle could get Liriano and the Twins going on this night. A fan dressed as jolly old St. Nick danced in the stands as ``Jingle Bell Rock' played before the sixth inning, trying to make the best of a tough night for Liriano and the home team.
Liriano (1-4) was chased in the fourth inning, allowing seven runs on six hits with four walks. His ERA swelled to 9.13, a far cry from the impressive comeback season he had last year.
``I don't want to make excuses. I just had a bad night,' Liriano said. ``Too many walks and trying to go deeper in games, that's just not working for me right now.'
Wade Davis (3-2) allowed two runs on seven hits with three walks and five strikeouts in 6 2-3 innings for the Rays (12-11).
Luke Hughes had three hits for the Twins, whose pitchers walked nine hitters.
Twins defenders were left out to shiver for 17 minutes in the first inning while the Rays pounced on Liriano. Johnny Damon had an RBI single, Zobrist had a two-run triple and Sean Rodriguez followed with a single to get the home crowd booing their struggling left-hander, who needed 40 pitches to get through the inning.
Liriano gave up a leadoff single to Dan Johnson in the fourth, then walked Reid Brignac and Sam Fuld to load the bases, and he hit the showers without recording an out.
Eric Hacker, who was scheduled to start in the second game of the doubleheader on Thursday, walked the first two batters to force in runs. Zobrist added a sacrifice fly to make it 7-1, and the brave souls who shrugged off the plunging temperatures started heading for the exits.
``Our lineup didn't do anything but the pitcher got us behind 7-0,' Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. ``That had nothing to do with our lineup. We had a couple chances to get a big hit and get a run too, but we didn't do that too.'
After an 0-6 start, the AL East champion Rays have surged into second place in the division - two games behind the Yankees - mostly on the strength of their starting pitching. But the struggling offense topped six runs for the second time in three games, and help is on the way.
All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria will start a rehab assignment with Double-A Montgomery on Thursday and plans to rejoin the Rays in Tampa on Tuesday. Longoria hasn't played since the second game of the season, when he strained his left oblique.
They will get little sympathy from Gardenhire, who had only one healthy bench player for the game. Delmon Young (oblique) was a late scratch and placed on the disabled list and Jim Thome (oblique) and Jason Repko (quad) also were unavailable.
The way Liriano dug them a hole in the first four innings, it may not have mattered.
``We've got to get his confidence going one way or another,' Gardenhire said.
Liriano said it has nothing to do with confidence.
``I got my confidence, I'm just missing my spots, just leaving the ball up in the zone,' Liriano said. ``Tonight was a cold night. It wasn't fun to be out there in that weather.'
NOTES: The Twins optioned Hacker to Triple-A Rochester afterward and recalled RHP Anthony Swarzak, who will start Thursday night. ... Jason Kubel had two hits and an RBI for Minnesota. ... The Twins called up OF Rene Tosoni, and he'll be in the big leagues for the first time.
The Associated Press News Service
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