For Orioles closer Mike Gonzalez, he has had been successful in this league over the years for having a chip on his shoulder when he takes the mound to try and earn a save.
In Gonzalez’s eight year MLB career, he has an ERA of 2.67 and 55 career saves over three full seasons as a closer. His best year came in 2006 while in Pittsburgh where he was a perfect 24-for-24 in save opportunities.
That pedigree earned him a trade to Atlanta for the last three years, but when he struggled this year for the Orioles early on, it may have been because of the bone chips he might have in his shoulder. Or it could have been a lingering back injury that has bothered him the last couple of years.
Or he could have just been trying too hard.
From spring training, Gonzalez has had issues with his velocity and his location. Gonzalez immediately shrugged them off as rust from not playing baseball for months after signing a two year, 12 million dollar deal in the offseason to become the Orioles’ closer.
He didn’t want to believe anything was wrong with him.
I had no shoulder pain. The only thing that bothered me early on was the back,” Gonzalez told Drew Forrester of “The Morning Reaction” Friday. “I didn’t feel like it was a big deal, but I did start doing some things differently.”
But when those struggles continued into the regular season, when he struggled in the opening two series of the year, the Orioles had seen enough.
They immediately placed Gonzalez on the 60-day DL on April 14, and Gonzalez has been rehabbing both a back injury that has plagued him the last several seasons, and a shoulder injury that popped up during the offseason, which could explain why he was barely hitting the mid 80′s on his fastball in spring training.
And the Orioles were quick to point out to Gonzalez what his problem was through MRIs and the tape, and only then was Gonzalez able to see what was wrong with him. His body just wasn’t telling him otherwise.
“You really don’t feel it physically.” I had to sit back and watch the video, go along with what the coaching staff had to say. They told me it didnt look the same, and I thought it was okay. Once you start seeing things on video, you say ‘Wow that’s not me’.”
Mostly rehabbing down at Single-A Aberdeen, Gonzalez feels like he is on the path back to success and the parent club..
“I’m on the comeback trail,” Gonzalez said. “Its feeling a lot better. It’s a positive thing, and I’m looking days away from getting back.”
Pitching tonight in Triple-A Norfolk, he will probably have two more outings at Norfolk before the coaching staff makes the decision to reactive him.
It was certainly not the way Gonzalez wanted to start out with a new team after coming over from the Braves last year, a year in which he saved 10 games splitting time with Rafael Soriano, who is now the closer in Tampa Bay.
“It was a frustrating start just because it was a chain reaction,” Gonzalez said. It started in spring training not that big of a deal…kind of a lower back kind of issue.”
Then Gonzalez said he tried to just shrug it off and that’s when he began to dig a deeper hole for himself.
“Then I tried to compensate for it, before you know it I’m doing something that I’m not supposed to be doing mechanically, and before you know it I have that shoulder problem a couple days into the season.”
And he knows exactly where it affected him the most. It affected his ability to get the ball over the plate. Regardless of how fast you’re pitching, if you can’t get the ball over home plate, no one is ever going to get out.
“I seriously did not know where the ball was going. And it was the second game. Im coming against Tampa trying to throw strikes. Mentally I’m there…mentally I didn’t have a problem once going into the game. It just wasn’t doing what I’m used to doing, and that’s what had me frustrated about the whole situation.”
And if his struggles in the opening series in Tampa weren’t enough, they followed him to Baltimore against the Blue Jays, where his poor outing on Opening Day cost his team the game and earned him the boo-birds from the Oriole faithful in attendance at Camden Yards.
But give credit to Gonzalez. He faced the media afterward and owned up to his performance to the fans and his teammates, who he said were the only people he cared about disappointing.
“Seriously you never want to be booed, especially like that. But that wasn’t the big deal to me. Obviously mine was the psyche of the team. They came out swinging and… played really well, and that’s where I needed to come in. That’s what I was signed for…to come in and shut the door.”
Gonzalez said he would have booed if he was a fan of the Orioles watching a pitcher choking away the ballgame like that with such high expectations coming into the year.
“In the fast perspective, I’m a fan. If I’m out in there in the stadium and I’m going to be booing also as a fan. You understand that you need to go and get it done…it didnt bother me.”
Gonzalez told Forrester that being a good major league pitcher, especially in the bullpen, is having the ability to come back a day later and have a short memory- to not let bad feelings about you bother your psyche and confidence.
“I’m a major league ball palyer. I wouldn’t be here if I worried about those kind of things. Those are just reactions to what I went out there and did. And it was very, very poor. I didnt get it done and it was to be expected.”
Gonzalez says he also may be joining the team at just the right time too, as the team is coming back to work from the All-Star break after sweeping the first place Texas Rangers last weekend.
“Obviously they finished pretty well right before the half and went to Texas and regulated a little bit,” he said.
But he does realize that he is not on an 1-2 Orioles team anymore like it was the last time he pitched, he is now on a team with a new manager and 30 games below .500.
“It’s hard to see the talent that these guys have and see that they havent been competing the way they should be.”
In a way, Gonzalez says the team’s struggles have been just like his this year-the talent is there, but luck is not.
“I think we did make some upgrades from last year, and just from the guys we have there, we have some talent there. We just haven’t been able to put it together, whether the offense is on that day and the pitching isnt getting it done.”
And Gonzalez said he actually learned a lot about himself during his trip to Aberdeen.
During his time at Single A, Gonzalez was able to pitch five innings of work, and he allowed five hits and struck out five.
His ERA was 5.40, but one thing Gonzalez said to Forrester was that he learned a lot from the determination his new young teammates had in trying to get to the big leagues.
“It was a fresh burst of energy,” Gonzalez said. “You see the passion that these guys have. They’re on a mission to get to the big leagues. And you have to sit back and remember that. Sometimes you forget its been six, seven years since the minor leagues, and its’ been 10- 11 years since the Aberdeen days.
“And it’s just going and seeing the enegy in these guys and being able to talk to these guys, and on the way on your comeback trail, able to help some guys out in any way you can…whether it be questions asked or jsut being a professional and showing them how it’s done.”
Gonzalez did admit to Forrester that now when he does return to the Orioles in his second attempt at being a serviceable reliever, he has to know his limitations.
“It’s staying on top of the shoulder, and thats always been tough for me. I’ve got that mindset where you want to go out and throw great everyday. And last year was one of those things, where ‘I’m ready everyday’…’I'm ready everyday’-to the point now where I’m going to need a day off whether i like it or not. I’m not 21 years old.”
But he certainly did not want to give up that chip off his shoulder when it comes to being a closer either. The Orioles just needs to make sure there aren’t any real bone chips in his shoulder or elbow first before coming back.
“I have to have that mindset where I’m going out there and giving whatever I have everyday. I just have to go from there.”
Tune into WNST and WNST.net for more news regarding Mike Gonzalez’s path back to the Orioles and hopefully closing games for the Orioles once again. WNST-We Never Stop Talking Baltimore Sports!