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Updated: March 7th, 2011 5:46pm
Mackey: Facing Greek God of Walks was an eye-opener for Kyle Gibson

Mackey: Facing Greek God of Walks was an eye-opener for Kyle Gibson

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Minnesota Twins right-hander Kyle Gibson faced a bit of a culture shock at Hammond Stadium last week.

Pitching against the top of the Boston Red Sox lineup in his first career major-league spring-training outing, the 23-year-old Gibson gave up a lead-off double to Marco Scutaro and an RBI single to Jed Lowrie -- certainly not a crime, as Gibson was admittedly nervous in the moment.

After Lowrie advanced to third base on a throwing error by right-fielder Joe Benson, Gibson -- the Twins' first-round draft pick in 2009 -- struck out Mike Cameron swinging for the first out of the inning.

Right-handed hitting Kevin Youkilis came to the plate next, and it was during this at-bat that Gibson realized he wasn't pitching to Double-A hitters anymore.

"I knew he was a good hitter, and (catcher) Drew (Butera) knew the same thing," Gibson said.

"(Butera) called a first pitch changeup. I threw it outside, it was real close. It probably could have gone either way, but it ended up 1-0. It looked like (Youkilis) was kind of taking the whole way on that one."

Gibson's next pitch was his signature two-seam sinker fastball -- a pitch he uses to bust right-handed hitters low and inside, inducing mostly whiffs and groundballs at the lower levels.

Youkilis, known in baseball circles as the Greek God of Walks, flinched as if he was about to swing, but laid off.

With the count 2-0, Gibson pumped a fastball over the outside corner for a strike, then figured -- because Youkilis flinched at his trademark sinker -- that he could get him to bite on 2-1.

"I went back to the two-seamer on the inside," Gibson said, "and he didn't even flinch at it. He just let it go. It was close again. And the same thing on the next pitch."

Youkilis -- a career .294/.394/.497 hitter -- took the free pass, as he often does. Gibson eventually pitched out of the inning after Ryan Kalish lined into a double play.

"It was a good at-bat," Gibson said about his five-pitch showdown with Youkilis -- an ordinary occurrence for any veteran, but a unique learning experience for a rookie. "All the pitches were close, and once he saw it the one time, he knew he didn't have to swing at it until it started more on the plate."

"At the lower levels it might have been called a strike," Gibson added, talking about those two-seam sinkers that Youkilis wouldn't bite on. "At the lower levels they swing at that.

"It's just a learning curve for me, making sure I start it more up on the plate so it looks like a strike to these guys. It's just something I'm learning."

And early indications are that Gibson, whose next appearance comes Tuesday at home against the Pirates, is a quick learner.

"I told him, first week of spring training, I said, 'You know what? your mom and dad did a heck of a job with you. You're a quality human being, a great person,'" pitching coach Rick Anderson said. "He's well-taught, he's mature, he's under control of what he does.

"He has a chance to be a top-of-the-line starting pitcher."

The front office and field staff are high on Gibson for two main reasons: He has the stuff of an ace -- four "above-average" pitches, according to Anderson, that he can throw at any time -- and the maturity and tranquility of a veteran.

Anderson and manager Ron Gardenhire have been particularly impressed with how dedicated Gibson is, how he studies the game.

Gibson coasted through three minor-league levels last season -- from High-A to Triple-A -- posting a 2.96 ERA with 126 strikeouts and only 39 walks and seven home runs allowed in 152 innings.

He throws a nasty, low-90's sinker and just looks the part.

Soon he will probably play the part.

"The big thing is, and you learn, you're not going to expect him to come up right way and recognize swings and approaches," Anderson said. "Guys that have been around a while will do that. Major League hitters, sometimes they'll set you up. They'll look bad on a pitch, and you think, 'I got 'em,' and they'll sit on it. There's always adjustments.

"The other day, he gives off a leadoff triple. He didn't panic. He just keeps making pitches and had a nice inning. He's learning as he goes. I said, 'You made one mistake,' and he said, 'Yeah, but up here you can't -- they're not as forgiving.' He's learning and he's a smart enough kid to apply it."

The triple Anderson mentions came off the bat of Tampa Bay's Justin Ruggiano last Friday on a slider up in the zone. Gibson walked the next batter, but settled down to record three straight outs.

"You can't do that against big-time good hitters," Gibson said about Ruggiano's triple, "and that's what I'm going to try to focus on this next time out -- working the bottom of the zone, back to getting all the groundballs I normally get."

"I mean, it wasn't that I threw a bad slider to that guy. It was a bad location. It was still moving, it wasn't like it wasn't moving. But if it's up in the zone and it's where they can get a hold of it, they're going to hit it hard. It's not as much about stuff, it's about putting it where you want them and getting them to swing at the pitch you want them to swing at."

Pretty mature and grounded commentary for such a young and relatively inexperienced pitcher.

"I guess it's pretty cool that people like the character I have," said Gibson, who got married in November to his long-time girlfriend. "That's a good thing for me. I'd rather be known as a good guy who does things the right way than an All-Star who's a jerk.

"It's something that was kind of instilled in me at (the University of) Missouri, I guess. The pitching coach there (Tony Vitello), he always told us, 'Go out there and compete, and if something doesn't go your way, don't let the other team know that that's not what you meant to happen.' I kind of took that to heart and said I don't want anyone to know if I'm doing good or doing bad. If they show up in the fourth inning, it should look like I've been throwing a no-hitter."

The consensus within the organization is that Gibson will pitch for the Twins in 2011. That's almost a foregone conclusion, barring unforeseen circumstances.

The only question is, when?

Gardenhire has hinted strongly that he'd like Gibson to be in the mix with Scott Baker and Kevin Slowey for the fifth starter slot, but the front office seems slightly more conservative, perhaps in part because calling Gibson up on April 1 could cost the team one year of service time if he were to earn Super-2 arbitration status.

But Twins officials insist the best 25 players will head north to start the season.

"Eventually I'd like to think I can handle it," Gibson said, "but I'm sure it's a completely different ballgame up there mentally.

"But if I were thrown up there, I probably would think that I could compete -- definitely not turn into an all-star right away. I'm not saying I'll go 13-2. It'd be a fun challenge. I'll be looking forward to it, and hopefully in the first couple months of the season I can find those couple things I need to make that push to get up there."

For the record, Gibson's next shot to induce a flinch out of Youkilis likely comes on August 8 when the Red Sox visit Target Field.

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
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