Gustafson tosses turkey for pitches

Tim Gustafson isn't home for Thanksgiving. Instead, the former Parkview and Georgia Tech pitcher is in Mexico getting in some of the innings that he's missed the past two seasons.

Not getting turkey and pumpkin pie isn't that bad of a trade off when your baseball career is at stake.

"Thanksgiving kind of snuck up on me," Gustafson said on Monday during an off day in the Mexican Pacific League. "It really wasn't something I was thinking about that much. Now Christmas, that would be tough to miss."

Gustafson, though, will be back in Georgia by then, having made arrangements before going to Mexico to leave the Navojoa Mayos in early December -- four weeks prior the end of the season.

"I'll have about 55 to 60 innings in by then, which is what I needed," Gustafson said. "I didn't want to overdo it. I want to be fresh for spring training."

Turning 25 on Dec. 29, Gustafson is at a pivotal point in his career, which has included reconstructive elbow surgery and a bout with shingles that set his return back last spring.

Drafted in 2006, Gustafson has pitched less than 200 minor league innings. That's why he was eager to spend a couple of months pitching in Mexico, no matter if he missed Thanksgiving.

"I wish there hadn't been the month gap between the end of the season and the start down here," Gustafson said. "I really felt locked in then and I didn't feel as comfortable at first here."

The results were good, though. Gustafson is the leader of the Navojoa starting rotation, going 3-1 with a 3.74 ERA in his first seven starts and pitching eight innings in his most recent outing.

That is a carryover from the end of last season, when Gustafson moved in the rotation at Class AA Mississippi and showed that he could work deep into games.

"He's doing a good job," Braves director of player development Kurt Kemp said of Gustafson's work in Mexico. "He needed to get the innings in and he's done that. We look at him as a swing guy. He can start or relieve."

As a Lilburn native and former football and baseball standout at Parkview, Gustafson would obviously like to spend next season with the Class AAA Gwinnett Braves. But he may have to start 2010 back at Mississippi.

"I really don't have any idea what will happen," the right-hander said.

"My job is just to pitch the best I can and someone else will decide where I fit."

Gustafson is enjoying his time in Mexico and picking up more Spanish to go with the two years in took in high school at Parkview.

Atlanta regualarly sends players to Navojoa, so Gustafson is far from isolated. Former or present G-Braves on the Mayos include Reid Gorecki, Stephen Marek and Matt Young.

"This isn't a big city and the people are nice," Gustafson said. "If they see an American, they figure you're a baseball player and they are patient when you try to say something in Spanish."

The Mexican Pacific League has eight teams and runs from October through December, with a split-season schedule.

Navojoa, which has a population of less than 150,000, is located in Sonora on the Gulf of California, about 400 miles south of the United States.

"I've been to the beach once," said Gustafson, who lives with other American players in a hotel not far from the ballpark.

Travel to road games isn't so easy, however.

"For a series in Mexicali, we had to take a bus three hours to an airport to get a flight to Tijuana, then get in taxis and drive on some crazy roads for a couple more hours," Gustafson said. "To get back, it was a 13-hour bus ride. There are so many checkpoints on the roads that you just have to be patient."

Because of his reconstructive elbow surgery, Gustafson has had to practice a lot of patience in recent years. But he hopes his career has finally turned the corner.

"I have a baseball camp at Parkview on Dec. 5-6, so I'm ready to get back for that as well as Christmas," Gustafson said. "But I think that pitching down here will pay off next year. I'm looking forward to spring training."