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Kirk Gibson’s passion spills over to Diamondbacks players

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Reporting from Phoenix — Kirk Gibson did not take losing lightly during his playing career, and he wasn’t about to take it lightly as a manager.

So when Justin Upton and his .241 batting average were summoned into Gibson’s office in Houston seven weeks into the season, there was every reason to expect the worst.

But instead of getting kicked around, Upton got a pat on the back. Instead of being brusquely challenged to produce, he was calmly asked to relax.

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“He told me I was pressing. And I was a little bit,” Upton said. “The team was struggling; I was hitting in the three-hole and I was about as bad a hitter as you can get.

“The moral of that conversation was ‘stop pressing.’ ”

And the moral of the story is that Gibson, gruff and stern as a player, has learned to adapt in his first full season as a manager.

So, too, have his Arizona Diamondbacks. In last place and falling fast in mid-May, Gibson’s team opens the season’s second half against the Dodgers on Friday six games over .500. It is three games behind World Series champion San Francisco, which leads the National League West.

It’s a turnaround that began with a different meeting Gibson called, one with the full team earlier in May. The Diamondbacks had lost five consecutive games and six of seven — all by one run — and were a season-high seven games under .500.

“I just said the one thing we won’t do is we won’t concede at this point in the season,” Gibson said. “I want everybody up on the top step cheering for one another. We may be beat, but we’re not going to let anybody know that we’re done.”

Inspired, the Diamondbacks beat the Dodgers, 1-0, that night, starting a run of 18 victories in 22 games that briefly gave them the division lead.

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“Once you have success and you have validation, then it all becomes part of your control zone,” Gibson said. “We started to play well and we started to feel it and understand that if we stuck with it that we could compete.”

It would be a stretch to suggest Gibson, 54, has mellowed with age. His clubhouse rules are among the strictest in baseball. For example, cellphones are banned in the clubhouse and, after certain hours, laptops are as well. Gibson finds both to be rude distractions. He also requires players and coaches to wear suits and ties on the road.

But there’s no question Gibson has matured. Made the butt of a spring-training joke during his playing days with the Dodgers, a livid Gibson stormed off the field in a huff, refusing to play in that day’s exhibition game.

Yet, when Diamondbacks pitcher J.J. Putz and second baseman Kelly Johnson this season persuaded the entire team to start a trip wearing ties depicting a shirtless Gibson hawking deodorant in a TV ad, the manager called the prank “pretty funny.”

“As a group we’ve done a great job of just really responding to each other,” said Upton, who is hitting .359 since his meeting with Gibson and was chosen an All-Star. “That’s what makes a team: being able to respond to the guys around you. When a guy’s struggling, being able to pick him up. And at the same time not make him mad.

“Gibby’s done a great job of that. Everything starts at the top and trickles down. And Gibby brought intensity and leadership and that’s what we’re getting right now from top to bottom.”

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It was a process that began — poorly — in spring training, Gibson’s first since replacing A.J. Hinch as manager last July. The new coaching staff implemented a philosophy heavy in fundamentals and the team chafed under the regiment, finishing the exhibition season with the second-worst record.

The confusion carried over into the regular season, as Gibson feared it would.

“It was overwhelming,” he said. “They were a little bit out of their comfort zone. But one of our goals was to change their comfort zones. To have them feel like they could be comfortable with doing things they weren’t used to doing.

“And when you get into competition, to have more tools in your tool chest to navigate your way out of trouble and maybe to extend innings.”

That marks a sea change for a team that had seemingly grown comfortable with losing since its last playoff appearance in 2007 — a change evident even from the opposing dugout.

“For them to go out and perform the way they have, it shows you a lot; what he’s been able to do to manage that team and manage those guys,” Dodgers outfielder Andre Ethier said. “Those guys have really gravitated to that style of baseball. They’ve made themselves a really good team.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

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