The Sports Informant

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Gio is River Cats’ 24 Hour Burrito Joint pitcher

By Albert Samaha
Sports Informant Contributing Writer

You know those nights. Everybody has those nights. A bunch of friends are over at your house, and you’re having a grand ole time. The E-40’s blaring and the drinks are splashing. Nothing could bring the night down. And then, at around 2 in the morning, somebody says those words. You don’t remember who said it, but it was said, “Hey man do you have anything to eat?” And hunger is more contagious than yawns. The fridge is barren. Nobody is sober enough to drive. It is during these moments, when all hope seems lost, that the 24 Hour Burrito Joint bails you out. It’s always open. It’s walking distance. It’s cheap. And just like that, the night is saved.

For the River Cats to three-peat (copyright Pat Riley of course!) as Triple-A champs they’re going to need a 24 Hour Burrito Joint pitcher to emerge. It’s no secret the Cats’ hitting is softer than Vince Carter on the back end of a back to back. In fact if you combined their top three home run hitters — Matt Carson, Eric Munson and Anthony Recker — Mathonic Carmunecker would still only be third in the PCL in home runs. Per tradition, pitching must carry this team. Vin Mazzaro carried the team before getting called up to The Show. Without Vinny, the Cats must now turn to Gio Gonzalez to be their ace.

As the season wears on the Cats are going to have some games where run support is scarce. Down the stretch, some of those games will be must win — they will need a 24 Hour Burrito Joint pitcher to bail them out and steal some of those games. A pitcher who all but guarantees a win every fifth day. A pitcher who can pull out those 1-0 complete games. A pitcher who can carry a team when the series is tied and the losers go home.

Every college kid needs a 24 Hour Burrito Joint. Every baseball team needs a 24 Hour Burrito Joint Pitcher.

Since the day Vinny Maz left Sacramento, Jovial Gio has absolutely lived up to the challenge. He has pitched like a 24 Hour Burrito Joint pitcher should. In his last three starts combined, Gonzalez has stuck out 20 in 19 innings, allowing just one run on five hits and 11walks. That’s an ERA under 0.49 and a 0.84 WHIP.

The three monster outings came at the heels of a rough mid-May stretch where, in three starts, Gonzalez gave up 12 earned runs in 13.2 innings. The slide was especially painful to watch considering Gio’s rough call-up to The Show last fall which, even after a few solid relief appearances late in the season, mercifully ended with his ERA at the sky high mark of 7.68. The question coming into this season would be how Jovial Gio would bounce back in his return to Sacramento. Would the shellacking in Oakland dice his psyche like a piece of sashimi? Or would he be even hungrier for success after tasting the sweet tang of The Bigs?

After some solid but short outings in April, it seemed Gio had returned to his PCL All-Star form of 2008. But then May came. And so came the runs. And out went the confidence.

Observing Gio warm up before games and interact with teammates, it becomes clear that he is an outgoing, charismatic individual. Watching him in games, it becomes clear that he often wears his emotions like an expensive brand name. Confidence is a big part of his game. His inconsistency and his demeanor serve as evidence to the fact that a large degree of Jovial Gio’s success, or lack thereof, is mentally generated. “It’s all mental” with this kid (I say that as if I were older than him. Great, now I sound like Bob Ryan — not that that’s a bad thing).

Maybe being pushed to the top of the rotation was the boost in confidence Gio needed to return to elite form, to 24 Hour Burrito Joint form. I mean, one thing I learned from my two years of college football was that I always performed better when I was playing with the starters, when the coaches reaffirmed their faith in me. It wasn’t so much that I was playing up or down to the competition, it was just that I played with more confidence knowing the coaches had confidence in me. Some guys are motivated by being spurned, by acknowledging the chip on their shoulder. Other guys — guys like me, guys like Gio — play better when their confidence is re-bolstered by the role to which they are assigned.

Communication scholars would cite this as an example of the Symbolic Interactionism Theory, more specifically the Looking Glass Self. This theory explains that individuals construct an image of themselves based on how they feel they are being perceived by others, and as a result tend to behave toward that mold. Basically, our identity is largely determined in relation to others. That’s why when I hang out with my football teammates I tend to act more like the nerd, but when I hang out with my honors program roommates I tend to act more like the jock. We play into the roles our environment sets for us. If I were assigned as a back-up then I would most likely begin to start playing like one. If I were given the role of starter then I would start playing like one.

Too often we automatically assume one’s success or failure is completely dictated by their innate ability, when in actuality these environmental circumstances play a large role as well. That’s why we consistently see random athletes have break-out years at the most random points of their careers (It can’t always be because of steroids right? Right?). Maybe after a change of scenery, maybe after a change in roles, or coaches, or some sort of adjustment in their personal life. It could be anything, really.

This may explain why Gio suddenly started pitching like an ace only when he became the team’s ace.

Of course this theory is not the end all be all. There can easily be other explanations for Gio’s summer resurgence. And innate ability does still play a large role in success as well. What we must consider is simply that external conditions play a significant role as well. By understanding these factors, teams may be better able to maximize the talents of their players. If all that was needed to restore Gio to ace form was to give him the role, then maybe he should have had the role long ago. Maybe he just needed to be told he was every bit as good as Vin Mazzaro, whether or not it was true. Maybe he needs more time in the minors to develop his confidence.

My theory is that Jovial Gio is a specific case where an extended stay in the minors is necessary. It seems the key would be to allow Gio to dominate for a full season or two, to give him the chance to feel like a dominant Triple-A pitcher, to give him full confidence in his ability to get professional hitters out. Gio did not get that opportunity before he was called up last season and that is why I think he struggled. It wasn’t his stuff. His stuff is filthy. It was his mentality.

Gio still has improvement to make in his game. He is not a majors-ready prospect like Vin was — mentally or physically. Gio may be 6th in the PCL in K’s, but he is also 6th in the in the PCL in walks allowed. In his last start, on June 8th against Colorado Springs, Gio looked spectacular. He threw six innings of one hit ball striking out a whopping nine batters. The single blemish, however, was his six bases on balls. He’s scheduled to start Saturday’s game against Tacoma, so we won’t have to wait long to see how his control is progressing.

It is possible Gio will be ready for a September call-up. But I don’t think it should be any sooner. Next spring he’ll be ready to be in a big league rotation. And he’ll bring his overpowering stuff with him. Next Spring.

For now, he’s Sacramento’s 24 Hour Burrito Joint pitcher.

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