JUPITER, Fla. -- With the race for the No. 5 spot in the Twins' starting rotation closing in on its final week, Kyle Gibson took strides to separate himself from the four-man field on Wednesday afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium.
The 26-year-old made his fourth appearance and second start of the spring, facing a dangerous Cardinals lineup filled mostly with regulars. He responded with a stellar 4 1/3 innings in which he limited St. Louis to one run on four hits, while striking out four and walking none.
"I think I've done a good job the last three weeks making sure I'm game-ready," Gibson said. "I feel like I've made the adjustments I needed to make this offseason, and at this point it's the front office's job to decide who they want and in what spot, and hopefully I'm one of those guys."
The front office's decision is complicated by the fact that while Gibson has Minor League options remaining, the same can't be said for fellow candidates Samuel Deduno, Scott Diamond and Vance Worley. The Twins can't send down any of those three without exposing them to waivers and perhaps losing them to another organization.
But purely from a performance standpoint, Gibson is making a good case.
Diamond and Worley both have been hit hard thus far, while Deduno -- who has pitched only in relief -- gave up two runs in 2 2/3 innings on Wednesday. Gibson owns a 2.70 ERA over 13 1/3 innings this spring, allowing 10 hits and three walks while striking out six.
"He's pitching really well," manager Ron Gardenhire said after Wednesday's 3-1 loss. "We really like him. He's doing what he's supposed to do."
Gibson, a first-round pick in the 2009 First-Year Player Draft, debuted in the Majors last summer and posted a 6.53 ERA over 10 starts. In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery, the Twins had him on an innings limit, and assistant general manager Rob Antony believes Gibson was starting to get tired by the time he came to Minnesota.
"But I think it was a good opportunity for him to see what the big leagues are all about, the preparation and everything," Antony said. "This guy's got good makeup, he's got a clue of what he's doing. What you learn in the big leagues is you can't pitch around guys and you don't have many outs in the lineup, so you've got to be focused on every guy."
Gibson was sharp from the beginning on Wednesday, setting down the Cardinals in order in the first while striking out both Kolten Wong and Matt Holliday looking. He threw 45 of his 73 pitches for strikes, worked mostly ahead in the count and finished off hitters with both his fastball and offspeed stuff.
His one mistake came in the fifth, when he shook off catcher Josmil Pinto's call for a fastball away and delivered a slider down to Matt Adams, who pulverized it over the right-field wall. While that might have been a case of Gibson being overconfident in his abilities, in general he feels that he's benefiting from being more sure of himself than he was a year ago.
"I'm more relaxed, more comfortable with what I'm doing, more confident in my approach because I've had a little more success," Gibson said.
Even when Gibson gave up three runs in the first inning in his previous start against the Yankees, he rebounded with three clean frames after that. He stayed with his approach and continued to attack hitters, he said, whereas last season such adversity would have made him tentative.
Whether Gibson's progress and spring success is enough to put him on the Opening Day roster remains to be seen. The Twins don't plan to make a decision until the end of camp, and all of the candidates figure to pitch at least once more before that point.