They have become some of the most dreaded words in baseball: third time through.
Nobody dreads them lately more than Kyle Gibson.
One of the most basic tenets of pitching is that familiarity is mostly bad for the pitcher, that hitters become more comfortable the more they see a pitcher. In practical terms, a hitter’s second at-bat is usually better than his first, and the third is usually better than the second.
The third time through the batting order has become a particularly fraught challenge for pitchers, including Gibson. He’s made three starts this season, and the third time through the batting order has become a minefield for him every time.
On Tuesday, Gibson looked like he had recaptured his effectiveness from 2018 — for awhile. He had little trouble with the Blue Jays for five innings, allowing a single that was quickly erased by a double play, and two walks.
But in the sixth inning — the third time through Toronto’s order — it all fell apart. Danny Jansen singled. Eric Sogard doubled. Freddy Galvis struck out, but Randal Grichuk walked. Justin Smoak singled in two runs, and all of a sudden, Gibson’s night was over.
In New York last week, Gibson faced five Mets three times, and while he retired two of them, he also allowed a double and two walks. In Kansas City two weeks ago, it was even worse: He faced six Royals three times, and they went: single-single-home run-groundout-single-single.
That’s 15 batters who have faced Gibson three times in a game this season. Eleven of them have reached base, and worst of all, seven of them have scored.
“His stuff is generally still good. I don’t know if we can point to [fatigue] at all,” manager Rocco Baldelli said. “When we look at him throwing the ball, we’re giving ourselves an opportunity to get through those innings. He’s a guy that can get through them.”
Though he said third-time-through wasn’t the reason, Gibson used a strategy Tuesday that might help address the problem at some point. He didn’t throw a slider until the fifth inning, sticking with his curveball as the counterpoint to his fastball until then.
“When we started incorporating the slider in the fifth, it felt like a really good adjustment,” Gibson said. His curveball “had good break and bite on it. … It allowed me to save [the slider] for the fifth and throw some good pitches with it later on.”
So why has Gibson’s results been so uneven? Why have opponents hit .204 the first two times they face him, and .636 the third time? Why is his ERA now 7.36?
“A little bit of it is just general command. It’s stuff we’ve talked about,” Baldelli said. “We have to find a way to put hitters away, and maybe more importantly, simply have fewer hitters on base and just kind of do something about the walks that we’ve had. It’s a very straightforward thing, and something we’ll be able to iron out.”
The flip side of becoming comfortable with a pitcher the more you see him is this: “It’s harder to hit a guy the first time you see him,” Marwin Gonzalez said Wednesday. But that wasn’t the case for him in Tuesday’s game, when he launched a 96-mph fastball from Toronto closer Ken Giles over the center field wall.
Part of the reason, Gonzalez figures, is he had watched Giles pitch plenty of times — but from behind him, when both were with the Astros from 2016-18. “Obviously I know what he throws, how hard he throws, what kind of pitches he has. So that made it more even,” Gonzalez said. “I was lucky to get a fastball right down the middle, and I put a good swing on it.”
It was Gonzalez’s first home run as a Twin, and only his seventh hit — a slow start, but a typical one for Gonzalez, who is hitting only .184. But not since 2015 has the utility man hit better than .217 in the season’s first two weeks. “It’s been a battle. My swing has been rough,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve been working hard every day to get to my point at home plate.”
“That’s a great sign for him. He’s had some good at-bats, but hasn’t had some balls fall in,” Baldelli said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him kind of catch fire at some point and seeing what he can do.”
Sano in training
Miguel Sano reported to the Twins’ camp in Fort Myers, Fla., on Tuesday and began his late spring training as he comes back from a foot injury, Baldelli said.