As the ball sailed over the left field fence and hit the facade of the second deck, a jubilant Kyle Gibson raised both hands high over his head in excitement.
He just hit a home run.
OK, so it was only in batting practice, but it was still a thrill for the Twins right-hander to step into the batting cage last week at Target Field as Minnesota’s pitchers prepared for their West Coast road trip. Gibson didn’t pitch in a National League park last year and still doesn’t have a major league at-bat on his resume. He didn’t get to hit while pitching at Missouri, either, so he hasn’t swung the bat much since his days at Greenfield Central High School in Indiana.
When Gibson takes the mound Friday against San Francisco, he’ll also have his chance to dig into the batter’s box. Oh, and he gets to face two-time Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum.
"I love it. I miss it a lot," Gibson said of hitting. "It’s a lot of fun as a pitcher. Whether you’re bunting or actually getting to swing, it just feels like you’re on the offensive efforts a little bit. I definitely don’t mind having a DH for most of the starts of the year, but it is nice to get in there and get some swings and see if you can get lucky and get a hit."
Just two of the Twins’ five starting pitchers have recorded hits in their careers. Not surprisingly, it’s the two who spent most of their time in the National League. Kevin Correia, who previously pitched for the Giants, Padres and Pirates, entered Tuesday’s game against San Diego with a lifetime average of .113 (32-for-338) with five doubles and 12 RBI. He worked a seven-pitch at-bat his first time up Tuesday before flying out to right field for the first out of the third inning. In his only other at-bat of the game, Correia was called out on strikes against Padres starter Ian Kennedy.
Right-hander Ricky Nolasco, who will pitch in Sunday’s series finale against the Giants, has had slightly better success at the plate than Nolasco. Having spent his entire career in the NL before this season, Nolasco is a .138 hitter (57-for-369) during his time with the Marlins and Dodgers. He also has one home run, which happened to come in his first season in the majors in 2006. He took Cubs pitcher Sean Marshall deep for a solo homer, but hasn’t hit one over the fence since then.
Twins starter Phil Hughes, who takes the mound Wednesday against the Padres, is still searching for his first career hit in the majors. He had just eight at-bats to his name during his tenure with the Yankees, but was 0-for-8 with a pair of strikeouts and two sacrifice hits. On that same day Gibson celebrated his batting practice bomb last week, Hughes hit a handful of pitches that had no problem clearing the left field fence at Target Field.
"Phil Hughes, I could DH him and I’d be comfortable," said Twins manager Ron Gardenhire. "He looks like he could really swing it. He’s a strong kid, and he can swing a bat."
Like most American League pitchers, it’s hard for Hughes to develop any sort of rhythm at the plate when only taking batting practice for a few days a year. When Correia and Nolasco were in the National League, they’d hit on nearly a daily basis in some instances. The Twins pitchers just recently took their first cuts in the batting cages in anticipation of this five-game road trip to National League parks.
Yet while Hughes put on a hitting display in BP last week, he’s set the expectations low for what he might do in Wednesday’s game.
"BP’s a different story," Hughes said. "I don’t even have a hit in interleague. I guess my BP skills play above anything else."
Hughes’ first at-bat of his big-league career came back in 2010 against the New York Mets. The pitcher he faced that day just happened to be a current teammate, Mike Pelfrey. With two outs in the top of the second inning, Hughes dug into the batter’s box and actually worked a seven-pitch at-bat against Pelfrey that included two two-strike foul balls to keep himself alive before ultimately grounding out to the shortstop.
His first hit has eluded Hughes ever since. As he looks for his fifth win of the season Wednesday, he could potentially increase his chances by finally coming through at the plate.
"You could probably end up winning yourself a ballgame, too, if you do get the job done," Hughes said. "It’s all fun, but it really could make a difference, especially in interleague."
As much as Minnesota’s pitchers relish the opportunity to hit once or twice a season, one thing’s certain: no one on the Twins’ staff will likely be confused for hitters any time soon. For the most part, they enjoy the luxury of having a designated hitter take swings for them on a regular basis.
"Back when I was playing, pitchers used to pinch hit," said Gardenhire, a career .232 hitter as an infielder with the Mets. "There were times when the Pirates had some pitchers that used to pinch hit. I’m glad I didn’t play on that team. They would have been hitting for me all the time. But they had guys that were better hitters than I was. That’s not saying a lot."