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Updated: March 11th, 2012 11:54am
Even before Tommy John surgery, Kyle Gibson 'was just struggling'

Even before Tommy John surgery, Kyle Gibson 'was just struggling'

by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson was all smiles after minor league practice concluded at the Lee County Sports Complex on Sunday morning -- partially because Gibson is a happy, optimistic guy by nature.

And partially because he's back on the field, albeit in a limited role, after undergoing Tommy John surgery six months ago.

Gibson is currently eyeing June 7 as his first bullpen session. As of right now, he's up to throwing from 60 feet and hopes to increase that to 75 feet by the end of the week.

"When my arm feels good like it does now, I kind of want to let it go a little bit," said Gibson, the Twins' first overall pick in the 2009 draft. "But I know in the back of my mind that's really probably not a very good idea right now. No need to rush it. I don't think that I'm going to get far enough ahead of schedule that it's going to change any dates or anything, so basically my focus is just that I stay on schedule, and when June 7 gets here, be ready, and from there prepare myself to be on the mound in August."

August is organization's target for Gibson to make his first post-surgery start. Once he throws a bullpen session in early June, it will likely take between four and six weeks to ramp up for game action.

"I think right now it's a goal every day of making sure I'm ready when I go out there and take the mound," he said. "Every day I'm coming in I'm doing my short work and doing my towel work so that I'm ready when June 7 comes around. And it's going to come around quick. It seems 2 1/2, 3 months away, but it's going to jump on me. ...

"I'm not counting the days just yet. There's a lot of work to be done and lots of throwing and a lot of strength to get back in my arm before I get up there and can actually do my thing."

The Twins could use a guy like Kyle Gibson in their starting rotation this season.

The pre-2011 version of Gibson, that is -- the one who skyrocketed up three minor league levels in 2010 by posting a 2.96 ERA with 126 strikeouts and only 39 walks in 152 innings.

The one who moved up to No. 34 on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list.

And the one who caught the eye of Ron Gardenhire last spring, so much so that he lobbied at times for Gibson to be inserted into the starting rotation competition.

When Gibson was sent down to minor league camp last March, it was widely thought that he'd pitch a month or two for Triple-A Rochester, dominate, then be inserted into the starting rotation to help push for a playoff chase.

Hitters raved during live batting practice sessions about the downward and inward movement of his two-seam sinker.

Instead, the right-hander struggled to pitch deep into games the first three months of the season, then felt a twinge on June 30 in a start against Pawtucket.

"It really wasn't something that had been bothering me for a month," said Gibson, who turned 24 this offseason. "It was just kind of that one outing. I was doing something different, and it's not like a certain pitch. It was just kind of the whole outing. It was my longest outing of the year, I was trying to make a mechanical adjustment. I think my arm just wasn't in the right position, and it kind of put some wear on my arm that wasn't there."

Gibson backed off from throwing for a few days, then made two starts after the minor league All-Star break in mid-July. He lasted just four and five innings, respectively, and allowed a total of 11 earned runs on 15 hits and five walks.

"My arm did feel better (after the time off), so that's why we thought it was a flexor mass strain instead of a tear," he said. "And after I threw, it got a lot worse again the next day. It was kind of a rollercoaster. I would take a couple days off and then it'd get better. I'd throw in a game and it'd be OK, then the next day it would be worse. A couple outings after the All-Star break they finally said, 'Let's just go see what it finally is, and actually find what the source of the problem is.'"

The source was a torn Ulnar Collateral Ligament.

Gibson said he has talked to several minor- and major-league pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, including Joe Nathan, to figure out what to expect -- "what soreness is good, what soreness is weird and just kind of preparing me for it that way."

But even before he felt a twinge in his elbow, Gibson did not pitch particularly well in Rochester. In six June starts he lasted more than 5 1/3 innings just once, and he allowed 13 more hits than innings pitched.

And by Gibson's count, "I didn't get any double plays. I think I only got two all year, which for a sinkerball pitcher is not very good if you're giving up singles."

It's possible Gibson's UCL limited his pitching abilities before he felt pain, but he sees different reasons for his struggles.

"I mean, really, last year, I can't really get too frustrated with not being called up to the big leagues last year, because I really wasn't throwing real good. I was just struggling. My fastball command really wasn't very good. My off-speed was good -- probably as good as it's ever been. But it just goes to show, your off-speed can be really good, but a pitcher like me, I have to work off my fastball. And if my sinker's not good, I'm really not going to throw very well. ...

"They always say, if you don't like where you are, play better. And that's one thing I needed to do last year. If I wanted a chance to get up there I just needed to be pitching better. It just wasn't my year."

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
In this story: Ron Gardenhire, Joe Nathan
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