The Twins had the worst record in franchise history at 59-103 in 2016, and the expectations were for more of the same in 2017. The competition for the American League’s second wild-card position turned into a mess, and the Twins managed to claim it with two strong months and an 85-77 record.
The tall drink of water from Indiana, Kyle Gibson, was vital in this stretch drive. In a season that started with such misery that Gibson was sent back to Class AAA Rochester for a month, he went 6-0 with a 2.92 ERA in eight Twins’ starts from Aug. 22 to the end of the schedule.
If Ervin Santana had not made a 3-0 lead disappear so quickly in Yankee Stadium, Gibson was to be the Game 1 starter for a division series in Cleveland.
The 2019 Twins are headed back to the postseason in a much more impressive fashion, with both the first AL Central title since 2010 and 100 victories for the second time in franchise history in sight.
It would also appear the Twins need to see a solid Gibson as badly at this moment as they did to reach that one-or-done situation in 2017.
There is probably a player in the Twins’ 59 seasons who did the team worse than Michael Pineda with his 60-game suspension for a banned substance, but I can’t come up with one.
The Twins were just getting by with their starting pitching prior to that, and then the giant righthander – the best of the bunch since July — was gone as of Sept. 7.
Jose Berrios has rebounded since then, and Jake Odorizzi has been fine all season, but that’s it for certainties with Pineda missing. Martin Perez isn’t playoff starter material, and Gibson started losing the fight against stomach ailments in August.
He has made six starts since Aug. 8, with 46 hits in 31 innings and a 7.55 ERA. There was a 10-day stay on the injured list in between the fifth and sixth of those starts. Most recently, the Twins tried Gibson in relief, and he gave up a three-run homer to Cleveland’s Roberto Perez on an ill-conceived fastball to turn around a game Sunday.
Gibson is the senior Twins’ player on the roster, dating to 2013. That was only his second relief appearance. He has made 187 starts over seven seasons, seventh all-time on the Twins’ list.
He was coming off his best season in 2018: 32 starts, a career-high 196⅔ innings, and a career-low 3.62 ERA. The changeup that had been emphasized by pitching coach in Neil Allen back in 2015 was the best it ever had been.
Then, Gibson went to Haiti on a charitable mission during the winter, came down with E. coli and lost more than 20 pounds. He claimed at the start of spring training to have regained most of that.
Media observers were skeptical. That string-bean 6-foot-6 frame seemed extra lean. No matter. When he beat Kansas City with 6⅔ innings on Aug. 2, he was 11-3 with a 4.02 ERA.
The usual complaints about “nibbling’’ could be found on social media, but as manager Rocco Baldelli said with what seemed full sincerity on Wednesday: “Gibby was throwing very well. His body of work was fine.’’
Particularly fine when you consider that he hadn’t been feeling 100 percent with his stomach since the E. coli appeared. Then again, his wife Elizabeth was scheduled to give birth to the couple’s third child in September, so it wasn’t a situation to go home and complain about discomfort.
“It started to get worse after the All-Star break,’’ Gibson said. “I was diagnosed with colitis, which they now think is tied in with the E. coli. Not a lot of sleep, and not because of the baby. The baby’s great.
“It was waking up at 5 a.m. for a trip to the bathroom, followed by 6:30, 8 and 9:30.’’
Gibson admits to losing back the weight that he had regained this spring.
“I’m around 200 — maybe 12 pounds light,’’ he said. “I feel better. I had a good bullpen Tuesday. I’m ready to go Thursday night. I expect to pitch well.’’
Baldelli was asked what he has to see from Gibson on Thursday, and in one or two starts next week, to write him in as a postseason starter.
“I don’t think we’re looking for a specific result,’’ Baldelli said. “It’s how he’s using his pitches. We just want him to get on the mound and look comfortable. Gibby’s one of our starters.’’