Finding a groove


For The Daily Reporter

CHICAGO — Still fresh on his mind, Kyle Gibson was in search of answers while conversing one-on-one with Minnesota Twins pitching coach Neil Allen inside the visitor’s clubhouse at U.S. Cellular Field.

A day after the right-hander opened his third big-league season with an exasperating loss against the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park, Gibson needed to talk it out one last time.

“Sometimes you aren’t going to get those called strikes,” Allen said Friday afternoon as the two discussed his last start for a few minutes.

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Listening intently, the 6-foot-5 Greenfield native nodded in agreement before rehashing a few of the Tigers’ key at-bats with Allen, reassuring each point with a give-and-take suggestion.

It was the shortest outing Gibson had pitched in his big-league career since surrendering seven earned runs in three innings against the Cleveland Indians on Sept. 11, which led to an 8-2 loss to the Cleveland Indians last season.

The Tigers got to Gibson early, scoring two runs in the bottom half of the first inning as Anthony Gose opened with a bloop double. Two walks loaded the bases before back-to-back RBI singles put Gibson and the Twins in a quick hole.

By the bottom of the fourth, three more walks and a two-run homer by J.D. Martinez ended Gibson’s day after only 3-2/3 innings as American League Central rival Detroit swept the three-game series with a 7-1 win.

“He might have got out of his game plan a little bit because he’s young, but sometimes he’s not going to get the two-seamer to sink so well off the plate by two or three inches. In that instance, he had to try to get back into some counts. He’s figuring it out,” Allen said after the two broke from their casual pow-wow. “He’s got good stuff. He has good mechanics. He knows what he wants to do and what he’s trying to accomplish.

“The best thing is he’s wide open to any thoughts and ideas.”

With 42 starts since being called up from Triple-A Rochester in June 2013, Gibson has become both sponge and guru.

Adversity is nothing new to the 22nd overall pick in 2009, who was ranked as the 34th overall prospect by Baseball America in 2011 before being sidelined with a sore elbow and eventually Tommy John surgery a few months later.

He’s experienced both the highs and the lows.

As a rookie in 2013, the University of Missouri product tossed six quality innings at Target Field in his major-league debut against the Kansas City Royals, winning the game with five strikeouts, two earned runs and a celebratory shaving cream pie in the face.

The moment was a culmination of his fortitude as he made a full recovery from surgery and rehab at only 24 years old. He finished the year with two wins in 10 starts and a 6.53 ERA.

In his first full season, he began to deliver on his potential with a 3.96 ERA in 134.0 innings and 11 wins before his numbers began to level out, leading to a 4.47 ERA and two more victories. He threw a career-high 179.1 innings.

Starts like he endured last week are “going to happen,” Gibson admits with a leveled perspective.

Though, that wasn’t always the case.

“There were times in that first year and definitely in 2013 where starts like that I would have been pretty frustrated by the second and third inning, but I feel like I was able to keep my cool pretty well,” the former high school All-American remarked. “Things didn’t work out for me, but I felt like I had a pretty good mental approach the whole day even through those bloopers.

“I couldn’t have said the same thing my first year,” Gibson said. “I think I’m growing and definitely making good strides that way.”

As a dad, added responsibility has brought with it a distinct focus for Gibson. Last March during spring training, his wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to their first child, Hayden Leigh. The change has been a positive one, providing balance for the 27-year-old.

“It’s been great. She’s a year old, walking around and starting to figure things out. She’s getting pretty smart pretty quick. It’s been a lot of fun,” Gibson said. “There are certain things that definitely take precedence in life, and being a dad is one of them.”

On the mound, consistency is the top priority this summer for the former Big 12 Conference standout and FISU World Championship gold medalist for Team USA.

Other than posting gaudy strikeout numbers at Greenfield-Central with 251 in his career while leading the Cougars to a sectional title in 2005 and an elite eight berth in 2006, Gibson is a self-described contact pitcher.

In college, his strikeouts per 9.0 innings hovered around 10, and in the minors he peaked at 8.59 with Rochester prior to Tommy John surgery. In this two seasons with the Twins, Gibson averaged 5.4 but more importantly only allowed 12 home runs and 57 walks with 107 strikeouts.

“I think there are certain times when strikeouts are going to be something I’m going to go after, but I’d rather be efficient,” Gibson said. “I’d rather get out of there with three or four pitches per at bat. If it happens to be a strikeout, sure I’m going to take it.

“But I’d rather keep it in play with two or three pitches and never get to that point. That’s how you get deep into the game, and that’s how you get to eight or nine innings and you get that reputation as a guy that can go 200 innings a year.”

His heavy sinker and slider in addition to his fastball that increased in velocity (in the low 90s after surgery) were crucial in his ability to induce 315 groundballs in 2014.

Gibson’s control and command of the strike zone led to 2.86 walks per nine, which was a vast improvement from 3.53 in 2013, but the “big inning” remains a hurdle left to be cleared.

When he won in 2014, Gibson posted a 1.42 ERA. His losses saw that figure jump to 11.04.

“That was the one thing I saw on films from last year. Again, I’m still learning him,” said Allen, who is in his first year with Minnesota. “He would get in trouble, and next thing you know there would be a three spot on board. If he trusted his off speed a little bit more and maybe get them to rollover on stuff for a double play, he could avoid that. But again, he’s young, he’s learning and he’s doing a hell of a job at it.”

Incorporating a changeup and utilizing his curveball more in spring training, Gibson held batters to a .186 average and carried a 2.75 ERA with a 1.02 WHIP. More comfortable with the atmosphere and the grind mentally, Gibson is hitting his stride.

Now, it’s a matter of finding the right balance to go with his approach.

“(Allen) has been big on throwing my changeup, when to throw it and how to throw it and the situations, so it’s been a big help,” Gibson said. “I’m just trying to find a different mix. My sinker is still my best pitch, and I don’t really want to get away from that, so it’s more of just trying to figure out when to mix in a changeup. When to mix in a curveball and not try to overtake my pitching philosophy with off speed. It’s a matter of knowing when to use them.”

Jordan Schafer, an Indiana native and outfielder for the Twins, agreed.

Watching his teammate last year and in spring training last month, he knows how devastating Gibson can be from 60 feet, 6 inches.

“Just looking at his pitches from center and watching some of the reaction, especially the righties when he throws sinkers in, he breaks a lot of bats on righties in,” Schafer said. “When his sinker is on, it’s a really tough pitch to hit.”

The Twins believe Schafer’s evaluation is dead on, plugging Gibson into the third spot in the starting rotation with big expectations this season.

“For me, each year is a big year,” Gibson said. “The way the game is right now, there’s always young guys coming up. I’m still relatively new to the league and I’m still trying to earn my keep and earn my stripes so to speak, but each year is going to be a big year. I want to make sure that I can take that next step in development and that next step in my career.”

Gibson’s second start of the season was scheduled for Wednesday evening against Kansas City. The game ended too late for publication in this edition. Look for a complete recap Friday.