It’s been a while since this could be said about the Minnesota Twins:
The best thing that could have happened, happened.
Following the worst three-year span in franchise history, a downturn caused by amateurish starting pitching, they gave the last spot in their rotation this spring to Kyle Gibson.
Thursday, Gibson not only pitched eight shutout innings to beat the Blue Jays 7-0, and lower his ERA this season to 0.93, but he did so while displaying dominating stuff. For perhaps the first time since Francisco Liriano lit up the American League in 2006, the Twins have a talented youngster doing a fair impersonation of an ace.
The last time a Twin pitched this well at Target Field, Andrew Albers shut out Cleveland in August.
The difference: Albers used mediocre stuff and admirable guts to fool hitters en route to signing with a team in Korea. Gibson is a former first-round draft pick integral to the Twins’ future who has re-established himself as a big part of the team’s future.
Pitching coach Rick Anderson had asked veteran catcher Kurt Suzuki how he rated Gibson’s stuff. “Kurt caught all those great pitchers in Oakland, and he told me, ‘Gibson’s got great stuff.’ ”
At 6-6 and with long arms, Gibson can throw a fastball from a high release point that sinks and darts. While his fastball doesn’t often register above 91 or 92 miles per hour, his movement makes hitters uncomfortable, and he used his breaking pitches and inside pitches to make them more so. “He had hitters jumping all over the place,’’ Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said.
In 2013, Gibson debuted in the majors and finished with a 6.53 ERA. Thursday, after improving to 3-0, he said he felt his stuff was the same as last year, that his success is because of greater aggressiveness.
“His stuff is better than what he had last year,’’ closer Glen Perkins said. “If he doesn’t think that, he’s crazy. When you have better stuff, your confidence increases. I don’t think it’s the other way around.’’
Gibson’s only real flaw in his first two starts was his lack of control. He had walked eight batters in 11 ⅓ innings. Thursday, he walked only one and gave up four hits, allowing only one runner to reach second base.
“I’m not surprised,’’ Perkins said. “I think we saw it in his first start last year when he got called up, the sink and the movement and the command. As time went on last year, you could tell he got tired. The velocity was still there, but that’s the last thing to go. Movement goes first, then you lose command.
“I was excited that they gave him an opportunity out of camp. Because I think he’s got a chance to be one of our best pitchers. We’ve seen that. He’s not going to have a sub-1 ERA the whole year, but you can see that he’s got the ability to pitch at this level and have success, and as more than just a middle rotation guy.
“He’s shown it. If he had gotten an opportunity earlier last year, we would have seen more of that and less of what we did see. He’s got it.’’
“He goes into spring training needing to prove himself to make the team, and he handled that pressure,’’ Anderson said. “Now he’s handling pitching in the big leagues.’’
Rebuilding baseball teams ask a lot of their fans. Rebuilding teams ask for patience, a commodity rarer in the 21st century than plutonium.
The Twins have asked, if not begged, for patience, and in the past four years three of their top prospects have gotten hurt. Miguel Sano had Tommy John surgery this spring. Byron Buxton hasn’t played a game this year because of a wrist injury. Gibson underwent Tommy John surgery in 2011.
Dreams deferred are not necessarily dreams denied. For a desperate franchise, someone such as Gibson, a likeable kid with pitches that swerve like unmanned drones, is hope personified.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib.