Gonzalez quickly sculpting unnerving image in Baltimore

April 09, 2010 | Luke Jones

If we can take anything from the opening series of the 2010 season, we know it’s going to be interesting in the final inning.

Unnerving.

Agonizing.

Hold on for dear life.

New closer Mike Gonzalez atoned for his Opening Night debacle by preserving the first win of the season Thursday night, but the performance was anything but routine in the Orioles’ 5-4 victory over Tampa Bay.

After striking out the first two batters of the ninth and appearing poised to retire the side in order, Gonzalez loaded the bases before finally enticing Ben Zobrist to fly out to right, thankfully ending a 26-pitch, 12-strike inning as Orioles fans finally breathed a sigh of relief and somewhere Earl Weaver burned through an entire pack of cigarettes. At least that’s the rumor.

Gonzalez made it very clear he was anxious to return to the mound following his blown save on Tuesday night, and to his credit, he got the job done, but it couldn’t have been any shakier. It’s quickly becoming pretty apparent why few teams were beating down Gonzalez’s door last December to sign him up as their fireman.

With just 54 career saves, Gonzalez had rarely been used as a primary closer in his first seven seasons in the big leagues. The 31-year-old lefty went 10-for-17 in save opportunities for the Braves last season and had saved no more than 24 (2006 with Pittsburgh) in any season.

But it was enough for Andy MacPhail to ink Gonzalez to a two-year, $12 million contract, designating him the replacement for George Sherrill and ending the short-lived Jim Johnson experiment at closer.

Gonzalez battled tightness in his back and hesitated to go all out in his spring outings, insisting he would be in top form for the regular season. You have to wonder how much that’s impacted his shaky start. For better or worse, Gonzalez is Dave Trembley’s closer. There is no other viable option in the bullpen.

The Orioles will live and die in the ninth inning as violently as Gonzalez delivers his fastball.

Few players have made such an impression—good or bad—in their first two appearances as an Oriole. It’s scary to think what the crowd’s reaction might have been at Camden Yards on Friday had he blown a second straight save and the 0-3 Orioles limped home to Baltimore for the home opener.

I’m guessing Aubrey Huff probably would have placed a call from San Francisco to offer moral support—hopefully without sharing his thoughts on the city.

But Gonzalez nailed down the victory, protecting Brian Matusz’ first victory of the season and allowing the Orioles to return home feeling better about themselves after the disappointment of dropping two winnable games against the Rays.

There’s no doubting his talent—chaotic mechanics and all—and a 2.63 career ERA shows he’s had plenty of success at the big-league level. Even Sherrill came to the Orioles as a little-known setup man with four career saves before becoming an All-Star closer.

In fact, when you look at the franchise’s history of closers, Gonzalez’s early tightrope act fits right in with a plethora of characters.

Don Stanhouse didn’t earn the nickname Fullpack for 1-2-3 innings but still managed to make the 1979 All-Star team.

Randy Myers may have set a club record for saves in 1997, but anyone following his career knows it wasn’t a Myers outing unless at least one man reached base in the process.

And Sherrill’s two seasons were anything but routine as he racked up 51 saves in two years for the Orioles before being dealt to the Dodgers last summer.

However, Armando Benitez, Mike Timlin, and Jorge Julio sit on the opposite side of the spectrum.

Need I say more?

It’s too soon to determine into which camp Gonzalez will ultimately settle, but the early return suggests fans might want to stock up on the Rolaids and Pepto-Bismol—or maybe something stronger—this summer.

At the very least, he should keep things entertaining.

***Don’t forget WNST.net is your source for Opening Day coverage as I’ll be at Camden Yards for all Opening Day festivities. Follow us on Twitter (@WNST) for the quickest updates and join us every game for our Orange Crush live chat to talk Baltimore baseball.***

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