Triple-A A Learning Experience For Gio

Highly touted pitching prospect Gio Gonzalez is learning what it takes to pitch at an advanced level of competition. In his first year at the Triple-A level, Gonzalez has battled control problems throughout the season. However, with two consecutive solid outings under his belt, Gonzalez appears to be turning a corner.

When the Oakland A's traded outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher to the Chicago White Sox in January, it was Gio Gonzalez who was considered the jewel of the package the A's received in return for Swisher. Gonzalez, a 5'11'' left-hander from the Miami area, led all minor league pitchers in strike-outs in 2007 with 185 in 150 innings for Double-A Birmingham. At only 22-years-old and armed with a fastball that can hit 94 MPH and two plus off-speed pitches, Gonzalez was tabbed as a potential star at the major-league level.

Gonzalez has a 4.40 ERA through nine starts.
With that sort of hype comes high expectations, and so there was bound to be some hand-wringing when Gonzalez didn't get off to a dominating start this season. Gonzalez didn't make it through six innings in any of his first seven starts and he allowed five runs in two consecutive outings on April 27th and May 2nd. That May 2nd start was Gonzalez's worst of the season. He walked five, struck-out none and allowed seven hits in only four innings. After that game, his ERA stood at an unsightly 5.18.

Gonzalez was finding himself engaged in a lot of long at-bats in those early starts, and he was maxing out on his pitch count early in the game. Over the past three outings, Gonzalez has been focusing on throwing more first pitch strikes, and in each of those outings, Gonzalez has gone exactly six innings.

"First-pitch strikes is something that I have been working on a lot. My pitching coach Rick Rodriguez has always been telling me, ‘let's go out there and attack the hitters and throw some first-pitch strikes,'" Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez held Southern League hitters to a .216 BAA last season.
Gonzalez points to command of his first-pitch fastball as the key to getting deeper into games.

"If you can start with that, then after that whatever [catcher] Landon [Powell] puts down, you can work off of that fastball. It makes your other pitches work better," Gonzalez said.

Sacramento manager Todd Steverson is encouraged by the progress Gonzalez has shown in his last three outings.

"I think he is still a work-in-progress, but he has been improving every time out there," Sacramento manager Todd Steverson said.

"His last three outings have all shown improvement. He got through six innings, which was a good sign. We are trying to get him deeper into ballgames and maximize his pitch count and he has been doing that lately."

According to A's Director of Player Development Keith Lieppman, the A's are worried less about the results that Gonzalez is producing on the mound and more about seeing improvement in at least one aspect of his game in every outing.

"We know what Gio can do. We've seen him over the last few years. Last year [in Double-A for Chicago], he was outstanding. We are confident that he is going to work out of his struggles," Lieppman said before Gonzalez's most recent start.

Gonzalez is working on throwing more strikes early in the count.
On Sunday, Gonzalez looked like the pitcher that the A's saw last season in Birmingham. Against a powerful Salt Lake line-up with a number of prominent right-handed batters and switch-hitters (Brandon Wood, Kendry Morales, Freddy Sandoval, to name a few), Gonzalez put together his best outing of the season. In six innings, Gonzalez allowed only four hits and one run. He walked two (tied for his season-low total), struck-out a season-best nine batters, and was generally in control of the game throughout his outing.

"My success was all thanks to my catcher Landon Powell. We were really clicking on the same page as pitcher and catcher and doing a great job of mixing up the pitches," Gonzalez said after the game.

"You have to go out there and try not to look at who is batting. You can't be afraid of a hitter. You give some credit to those guys who have been up there [in the big leagues], but you've got to attack them. You can't be scared of them and lay back and say ‘alright, this guy is a good hitter, so I'm not going to challenge him.' You have to attack them, just like they are looking to attack you."

Developing a strong relationship with his catcher has been an important part of Gonzalez's transition into the Oakland A's organization. None of the three catchers who have been on the River Cats' roster this season – Powell, Justin Knoedler or Gabriel Ortiz – had seen Gonzalez throw before the start of spring training.

"It's tough because I'd never thrown to them before and they'd never seen me, so they didn't really know what I throw. We have been working on finding a balance point between all of us," Gonzalez said.

Although Gonzalez has been pitching professionally since 2004, he is still only 22 years old. He has had to adjust to the advanced level of the hitters at Triple-A.

"It's been different [in Triple-A]. You are facing guys who can really swing the bat. There is a reason why they are up here, you know?" Gonzalez said.

"These are guys who have either been in the big leagues, or they are on their way up there. You've just got to constantly change the page on them. You can't show them the same stuff all of the time because there is a reason why they are up here."

The A's believe that there is a reason why Gonzalez is at Triple-A, as well, and that soon, Gonzalez will be looking back at his experiences at that level as the jumping-off point for a long major-league career.

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