Reusse: Significance of Gibson's return to the mound has no limits

  • Article by: PATRICK REUSSE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 2, 2013 - 10:22 PM

FORT MYERS, FLA. - The lingering impression is that Mike Rizzo, the general manager of the Washington Nationals, announced the hard number of 160 as the innings limit for righthanded starter Stephen Strasburg in 2012 spring training.

That wasn't really the deal. Rizzo said on Feb. 20: "We're going to run him out there until his innings are gone and then stop him from pitching."

Strasburg had undergone Tommy John surgery on Sept. 3, 2010. He had pitched 44 innings in the minors and with the Nats in 2011.

One-60 became the educated guess -- or the inside information -- on how far the Nats would push him in 2012.

When Strasburg wavered a bit, the Nats pulled the plug on him in early September at 159 1/3 innings -- making the original guesses look accurate. There was much howling over Strasburg's absence as the Nats headed to the playoffs. They blew a 6-0 lead and lost a decisive fifth game to St. Louis in a division series.

The Twins have a righthanded starter of promise who is returning from Tommy John surgery in Kyle Gibson. GM Terry Ryan's message is similar to Rizzo's from a year ago:

Kyle Gibson will be shut down at a certain point that for now remains vague.

This isn't a national story for two reasons: One, Gibson hasn't pitched in the big leagues, and Strasburg was already a phenom. And two, the Twins enter 2013 off the radar as contenders and of little intrigue to anyone outside the Upper Midwest.

Yet Gibson is very important to the boisterous and unhappy followers who make up Twins Region. They want starting pitchers who can provide hope for a return to competence.

Gibson was in only in his second pro year when he started the 2011 season at Class AAA Rochester. The expectation was that he could be in Minnesota before the All-Star break, if things went well.

They didn't. He was 3-8 with a 4.81 ERA. He allowed 109 hits in 95 1/3 innings. "What happened to Gibson?" was a familiar question as fans watched the Twins implode in 2011.

Answer: His elbow wasn't right.

The discomfort in his arm started at the end of June. He was cleared and pitched in the Futures Game at the All-Star break. Discomfort turned to pain and Gibson went on the disabled list on Aug. 2. He underwent Tommy John surgery on Sept. 7, 2011.

Gibson pitched 51 2/3 innings with three minor league teams and in the Arizona Fall League in 2012. Now he's back as the next-in-line rookie to earn a spot in the Twins rotation.

Is there an innings limit? Nothing official, merely a popular guess of 130, 140 innings.

Gibson, 25, pitched for the second time this spring on Saturday. First time out, he hit 95 miles per hour with a couple of fastballs and cruised through two scoreless innings. Saturday, he was throwing 92, his control wasn't as sharp, and he reached a 50-pitch limit with two outs in the second inning.

The lone run scored on an opposite-field home run by Juan Carlos Linares that appeared to be wind-aided.

"No, it was a four-seamer away, and Linares hammered it pretty good," Gibson said. "That was a real home run."

There was nothing to be distressed over in this effort from Gibson. There's a sharp break on his slider, a tumble on his sinker and, 92 or 95, he has enough fastball coming out of that 6-6 frame.

Gibson had not thrown to Joe Mauer until these two exhibition appearances. Mauer's now headed for the World Baseball Classic -- and leaving impressed.

"He has a good angle on his pitches," Mauer said. "The sinker will be a very good pitch for him. To see him throw this well early in camp ... I'm pleased. Everyone knows we need starters."

Even if it's for 130 innings, the Twins need Gibson to be the rookie starter ready to assist in a return to competence.

Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500. preusse@startribune.com

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