We’ve reached the end of the Dog Days of Summer, that period that stretches from 20 days before Sirius (the Dog Star) is precisely in conjunction with the sun until 20 days after those bodies are in alignment.
Those 40 or so days are typically the most cruelly hot of the summer and, coincidentally or not, the days when young professional baseball players often hit the proverbial “wall” during their first full season of pro ball. Players that are accustomed to playing anywhere from 40 to 70 games in a summer, find themselves having already eclipsed that mark by mid-June, with another 70 yet to play on the schedule.
It’s when bats become heavier in a hitter’s hands and pitchers often lose velocity or some sharpness to their breaking ball due to a “tired arm.”
Then again, the Dog Days of Summer really is a Northern Hemisphere phenomenon, so Cedar Rapids Kernels pitcher Sam Gibbons, who hails from Geelong, Victoria, in Australia, may well be immune to the Dog Day effects.
After a shaky start to his season, the 21-year-old Aussie didn’t really begin to hit his stride until the second week of July.
As Gibbons toed the rubber in Kane County on July 12 to begin his seventh start after joining the Kernels at the end of May, he shouldered an unimpressive 5.34 ERA after giving up 21 runs (19 of them earned) in his first six starts for Cedar Rapids.
The righthander gave up one run in the fourth inning of what would become a no-decision start against the Cougars that night and, from there, ran his scoreless inning streak up to 28 consecutive innings before giving up a pair of runs (one earned) in an 8-2 win over Bowling Green on Saturday night before a near-capacity home crowd.
Included in that stretch was a nine inning complete game shutout on the road at Kane County on August 1. It has been the only complete game shutout twirled by a Kernels pitcher this season and only the Kernels’ second complete game this year. (Mat Batts lost a 1-0 decision despite throwing a complete seven-inning game in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Peoria in May.)
Finishing the complete game meant Gibbons threw a few more pitches than normal.
“Last year, we were generally around the 80-90 (pitches) mark,” Gibbons explained, “but very rarely would we go over 85. Throwing 110 pitches (in the complete game), I was feeling it the last inning, but there’s no way I was going to give in.”
After that extended outing, Gibbons knew he was destined for a shorter night in his next start on Saturday.
“I think I was on some sort of pitch count (Saturday), but I was cruising through the middle three through six innings pretty well and then got two outs in the seventh. Then things got a bit sticky. But, you know, things happen. It’s OK and we ended up winning, so that’s the main thing.”
How has Gibbons gotten stronger as the summer heat has been at its most oppressive?
“You know, I wish I could bottle it and pass it around to other guys,” said Kernels pitching coach Henry Bonilla.
For his part, Gibbons said he does feel like he’s getting stronger, but doesn’t think his workload this season has been all that unusually heavy.
“The thing is, I pitch in the ABL (Australian Baseball League) every year, so I have at least 30 innings before I get to spring training on my belt,” Gibbons explained.” So I’m pretty used to having a fairly deep workload.”
We may not know what to credit for Gibbons’ improvement through the past several weeks, but he knew exactly who to blame for the scoreless streak coming to an end on Saturday.
“I spoke to my mom (after the game) and I told her it was all her fault for making me aware of it,” Gibbons related, with a smile.
Blaming mom? Wow. That’s harsh.
“I had to blame someone,” a laughing Gibbons reasoned.
Typically, Gibbons likes to take a bit of time off in the fall after the season winds up, but things didn’t work out that way for him this past offseason.
“My plan last year was to play after Christmas and the New Year,” he recounted. “Then I was asked to play on the under-23 Australian Team. so I went in November last year. That kind of interrupted things but any chance you get to play for your country is a great opportunity, so I definitely wanted to do that.”
Perhaps taking the extra off-season work into account, the parent Minnesota Twins held Gibbons back in Extended Spring Training when the Kernels came north to start the season, then promoted him to Cedar Rapids on May 28. He made his Kernels debut May 31. His first four starts after arriving were not pretty. surrendering 16 runs in 20 innings of work covering that initial stretch.
“Obviously, I had a bit of a shaky start, but things are coming good now,” Gibbons understated.
“I think after the first month, I was struggling with fastball command a bit, and not being able to throw off-speed pitches in fastball counts, where I have been now. I’ve been attacking guys, but attacking with my off-speed pitches, which is something I’ve never been able to do, really.
“So, having command and just having faith that if I make a bad pitch, that I’m going to come back and make a better pitch to get weak contact or a swing and a miss. I feel that fastball command, knowing I can throw a fastball wherever I want and when I want is something that is pretty big and that will progress you through the ranks.”
Bonilla, his pitching coach, agrees.
“He just came up and he’s been a strike thrower,” the coach observed. “He’s always been a strike thrower, he’s going to throw it over and I think that’s to his credit and also to his detriment. He didn’t really locate. He just said basically, ‘somebody’s going to hit a ball at a guy. If I throw a strike, I’ll be ok.’
“It worked for a while with some of the younger hitters that don’t really drive the ball, but some of these guys are prospects, they can hit the ball, or some of them are grown men. Some are 24- 25 year old men that can hit the ball far. He’s learned that the hard way.
“The first couple outings he got kind of hit around. To his credit, he’s allowed himself to change. He’s going to the corners a little bit more, he’s attacking down in the zone, being more aggressive by not throwing so many strikes. He’s throwing ‘quality misses,’ is what we call it.”
According to Bonilla, a lot of Gibbons improvement has come from his mentality, as much as any improvement he’s shown with his mechanics or pitch selection.
“He’s trusting it,” Bonilla said. “I think one of the biggest things for him is his confidence. He’s out there confident that he can make pitches. He does it and he does it with a purpose with all of his pitches.”
The coach also conceded that sometimes a little early failure greases the skids a bit for quicker improvement.
“It’s hard to go away from success on the field,” he explained. “If a (hitter) is hitting .300 and we’re telling him, ‘hey, it’s not going to work when you get to the big leagues,’ he’s going to be like, ‘well, I’m hitting .300.’ If a (pitcher) is getting outs here, he’s like, ‘what do you mean it’s not going to work?’
“So it’s hard for them to get themselves out of immediate success and look at four years down the future. To their credit, the ones that do are the ones that kind of take their lumps early, but you can see them kind of turn it around and stay with it and go good. And he’s one of those guys that’s been doing that. So he’s done a great job, I’m very happy with him.”
Gibbons was signed by the Twins as a 17-year-old in July, 2011, but continued to play in his home country for a while and didn’t make his first appearance for a Twins affiliate in the States until the following year.
“Our school (in Australia) works a bit differently, so I was actually halfway through my senior year of high school, so it was a bit different to how things are out here. It was a big thing for my mom to make sure that I finished high school.”
There’s that “blame mom” thing again. How dare she do something like wanting him to finish high school before moving thousands of miles away to play baseball for a living?
“I look back on it and I wanted to get over here as soon as possible,” Gibbons recalled, “but it was a slight decision, finishing high school at least.”
In the end, mom won out – as moms are prone to doing.
“So, I made sure I did that (finish high school) and then came over the following (extended spring training). The Twins don’t tend to like to bring Aussies over here for spring training their first year,” he explained. “Trying to wet their feet a bit, I guess, by just coming to extended and seeing how things work and then their second year, bring them over for spring training.”
Gibbons played two years for the Twins Gulf Coast League team in Fort Myers, then moved up to Elizabethton for the 2014 short season, where he teamed with many of the same guys he’s sharing the Kernels clubhouse with this season. That’s not an insignificant factor in his recent success, according to the pitcher.
“I feel that the (catchers) we have on our team, they really take notice of what pitches you have and what works well for the situation. Having (Brett) Doe, Navi (Brian Navarreto) and (Alex) Real behind there, it’s pretty good,” Gibbons offered. “All three of the catchers on this team now were in E-town last year and the majority of our pitching group is the same from last year, so everyone has a good idea of what we throw and when you want to throw it.”
All three Kernels catchers have been successful at controlling the opponents’ running games. Navarreto, for example, has thrown out over half of the runners attempting to steal off of him. That’s a factor Gibbons appreciates.
“Having Navi behind the plate the last couple of outings has been exceptional. We’ve played together for three years now, so he’s known me pretty well. I’m pretty lucky to have him behind there pitch calling and his defensive work is immaculate.”
Gibbons doesn’t appear to be exactly a high-maintenance pitcher for his catchers to have to deal with. If you find him sitting alone for a couple of hours before each start, he’s probably watching a movie or listening to music, not focused on envisioning every pitch that’s about to come out of his hand.
“No, no, not at all,” he admitted.” I don’t really do that until I’m out on the mound going, ‘ok, let’s go and see how this goes.’”
As the season winds down, Gibbons stands to play a critical role in the postseason for the Kernels. He’s thrown just over 64 innings since joining Cedar Rapids, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about the front office limiting his work just when the team needs him the most in the playoffs.
When his year in Cedar Rapids wraps up, Gibbons will be headed back “down under” for the off-season. For him, that means beach time.
“Back home, I live about 15 minutes from the beach,” he said. “I’m always going down there with buddies or just hanging out and kicking back. I play club ball sometimes or I practice and train with my brother. (Club ball) is like a mens’ league sort of thing that I just go down and I have some fun with my brother and my buddies that I grew up playing with.”
He’s going to take a bit more time off this year before starting the real training for his 2016 season.
“Definitely take off a fair chunk of the offseason and come back in mid-January at some point, I guess,” Gibbons said of his plans. “Play a bit of ABL and get a couple of starts before spring training.
“I have to be in contact with (Twins farm director Brad Steil). Henry (Bonilla) and I will sit down before the season finishes and see where the innings are at and see what they want – a pitch count or innings limit sort of restriction.”
Those limits will then be communicated to Gibbons’ ABL coaching staff.
“They’re happy to have me pitch whatever that is,” he added.
It’s good that the ABL coaches are so easy to work with. At least that’s one less thing Gibbons should have to blame his mom for.