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02/14/09 2:29 PM EST

Gonzalez hoping to avoid head games

Mastering mental side of game a focus for young lefty

PHOENIX -- Living up to the reputation he earned during his four-plus years in the Minors, Gio Gonzalez was all smiles Saturday after reporting for Spring Training with the A's at Papago Park.

A gregarious 23-year-old from South Florida, he spent part of the morning before Oakland's first pitchers-and-catchers workout trading barbs in Spanish with a couple of Latin teammates, then cracked on himself in English for putting on about 27 pounds over the winter.

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"It's that Cuban food in Miami," he explained, playfully patting his stomach. "But it's so good, man. I have to have it."

Gonzalez, who stands about 6 feet tall, quickly added that he's actually right where he wants to be weight-wise, having achieved his offseason goal of gaining strength and body mass. He felt a little worn out at the end of the 2008 season, his weight down to 180 pounds.

The goal for Gonzalez now is to get where he wants to be mentally.

He certainly wasn't there during his first crack at starting in the big leagues last summer. And the smile that again is coming so quickly wasn't anywhere to be found, either.

Called up from Triple-A Sacramento on Aug. 9, Gonzalez was moved into the rotation immediately, and the results were not pretty. He went 1-4 with a 9.32 ERA over seven starts.

The worst start was his last, an early September beatdown in Motown. Consistently missing his target and leaving balls up in the strike zone, Gonzalez served up three homers to the host Tigers, who chased him after 1 2/3 innings with a line of nine runs (eight earned) on five hits and two walks.

It was the third consecutive start in which Gonzalez was unable to get through more than four innings, and it was obviously wearing on him. After the game, he sat slumped in front of his locker, his face a tortured mix of emotions.

The frequent skull sessions in which then-bench coach Don Wakamatsu had been trying to infuse Gonzalez's fraying psyche with confidence seemed to help only until it was time to take the mound, so the A's tried something else.

They sent him to the bullpen, and that's where he stayed, working in all of three games over the final 20 days of the season.

"I think the game was really fast for him at this level last year," Oakland manager Bob Geren said. "And he was a little too excitable at times."

Gonzalez suggested that "excitable" might be understating things.

"You hear pitchers talk about needing to just forget about a bad pitch or a bad inning or a bad outing ... it's easier said than done," he said. "I was over-reacting, over-analyzing, over-everything."

Geren added over-exertion to the list: "At times he'd go harder and faster, when what he needed to do was back off and go slower."

Gonzalez agrees, and having had a few months to process everything, he's eager to apply the many lessons of last season.

"Definitely the mental side has to come first," he said. "You have to -- you have to -- to be in control of your emotions. I need to have a little more fun out there."

That said, Gonzalez realizes that keeping your head in check won't necessarily get guys out. He worked on a new changeup with University of Miami pitching coach J.D. Arteaga over the winter, and when asked what he'd learned about the physical side of the game last year, Gonzalez rattled off three keys.

"Keep the ball down, throw strikes, and follow your catcher," he said. "I need to get better at those things, too."

If he does, the smile will stay. A fan and media favorite while climbing the professional ladder with the White Sox, Phillies and A's organizations, Gonzalez embodies the lefty stereotype -- laid-back and a little goofy, usually a lot of fun to be around.

Geren is hoping to see more of that Gonzalez this season, less of the unfamiliar hang-dog. Gonzalez didn't allow a run over six innings in his three relief appearances at the end of 2008, but for now he's back in the mix as a starter, competing for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.

"The second [season] is usually better for a lot of young guys," Geren said. "I'm sure it will be for Gio, too."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.