The old Gonzo is back
Watching Mike Gonzalez record three strikeouts against the heart of the Cardinals lineup on Tuesday night brought back memories of the pure dominance he displayed on consecutive August nights three years ago at Turner Field.
While notching a pair of perfect innings for the Pirates those evenings, he collected five strikeouts. His final three strikeouts came during an 11-pitch span against Adam LaRoche, Matt Diaz and Marcus Giles.
Unfortunately after throwing another perfect inning in Houston the following day, Gonzalez began experiencing elbow soreness that would prevent him from proving dominant again until now.
On the way to notching Tuesday’s save, Gonazalez needed just 15 pitches to record consecutive strikeouts of Colby Rasmus, Albert Pujols and Ryan Ludwick. His fastball is once again resting around 94 mph and his breaking pitches are consistently sharp.
“That’s the old Gonzalez from Pittsburgh that I remember,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said. “He was outstanding.”
Always confident and upbeat, Gonzalez seemed to truly regain his swagger when he gained a 3-2 count by getting Pujols to look at consecutive fastballs. This brought the crowd to its feet and led the left-handed closer to exagerate his pre-delivery sway before unleashing a slider that the St. Louis monster simply watched.
In the seven career at-bats Pujols has registered against Gonzalez, he’s recorded one hit and struck out three times. When asked about this success, the left-handed closer said that guys like Chipper Jones and Pujols bring out the best in him.
Look Jones is one of the greatest talents I’ve ever seen and it’s been a pleasure to have had the opportunity to cover him over the course of the past nine seasons. But it still makes you pause when anybody is placed in the same category of King Albert.
Still somehow the Braves have managed to limit Pujols to one hit in eight at-bats during the first two games of this series.
“We try hard,” Cox said. “He’s going to be one of the greatest players in the game’s history. There’s nothing he can’t do.”
When Gonzalez displayed limited velocity during Spring Training, he said he would be fine once the bright lights were shining on him during the regular season. While wanting to believe him, I heard him say some of the same things just two years ago, when he eventually had to undergo Tommy John surgery.
Doubts about Gonzalez grew when he allowed four earned runs in his first five innings this season. But since surrendering a two-run, eighth-inning homer to Nate McLouth on April 17, he’s struck out nine of the 13 batters that he faced.
After surrendering that homer to McLouth, Gonzalez sat motionless at his locker, simply staring forward. A little more than a week later, he finds himself confidently serving as the anchor for a much-improved Braves bullpen.
Change of emotions: As 9:30 p.m. ET approached last night, the Braves were seemingly destined for another frustrating evening. But Peter Moylan, who had issued a costly walk in Tuesday’s loss, pitched a perfect eighth inning and Matt Diaz produced the clutch hit the offense has too often lacked over the course of its two-week slumber, during which they’ve scored two runs or less in eight of 12 games.
From afar, there was also reason to worry about the fact that Brian McCann was hitless in three at-bats for Class A-Advanced Myrtle Beach in a Minor League rehab assignment. But after writing my recap of what had occurred in Atlanta, McCann called to say that his vision was better than it had been since his left eye had started to bother him.
With a -.50 contact lens in his left eye and a -.25 lens in his right eye, McCann will make one more rehab appearance for Myrtle Beach and then return to Atlanta. He believes he’ll be fine by the time he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 8.
While it was nice to see Jo-Jo Reyes pitch so effectively on Tuesday night, the evening’s real feel-good moment occurred when McCann revealed that he was encouraged about his improved vision.
As time progressed and doctors weren’t able to pinpoint the reason for his left eye ailment, you couldn’t help but worry about the possibility that he might be dealing with something that would at least hamper him throughout what appears to be a very bright future.
McCann is great baseball player and an even better person. Let’s hope he provides another encouraging call tonight.
Hampton returns Friday: It’s going to be interesting to see how Mike Hampton is received when he returns to Turner Field on Friday night to pitch against Derek Lowe and the Braves. What do you think? Will the crowd boo the injury-plagued hurler, who was on the disabled list throughout most of final four years in Atlanta?
Or will he just receive an apathetic welcome from a fan base that began to forget him as his injury woes mounted from 2005-2008?
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