Gonzalez's improbable rise mirrors Orioles'
Rookie's path to the big leagues was nearly derailed by injuries
BOSTON -- The nine pitches that changed Miguel Gonzalez's life didn't even count.
But the three batters that dug in against the right-handed pitcher for an early fall exhibition game in Mazatlan -- a city nestled in the Mexican state of Sinaloa -- combined for a trio of strikeouts that forever intertwined two men on the fringes of professional baseball for a narrative that should be etched in Mexican Winter League lore.
Legendary scout Fred Ferreira doesn't remember why he was at that exact scrimmage, or even who Matzatlan was playing. But the image of the right-handed Gonzalez, who carved up the side in his only inning of relief, was a thing of beauty. The movement on Gonzalez's pitches -- mainly fastballs, with several splitters sprinkled in -- and that smooth delivery was enough to impresses Ferreira.
With no ties to any pro organization, the 76-year-old Ferreira, who has four decades of scouting experience, committed the image of Gonzalez to memory. Several months later, as the newly appointed executive director of the Orioles' international recruiting, Ferreira was sitting in a meeting with new O's executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette. It was late January and Duquette was lamenting the organization's lack of pitching depth. Baltimore, fresh off a last-place finish and 69-93 season, was in dire need of some capable arms.
Ferreira smiled and told Duquette, "I just saw a guy that can help us."
It is the best story within one of baseball's best stories -- a 28-year-old rookie who entered this season with one career game above Double-A bolstering an Orioles club on an improbable playoff run.
"I think you have to pinch me," Gonzalez said as his impressive stats are recited, his wins over teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Angels treated with such reverence it's as if he's waiting for those starts to be erased. "I still don't believe that I'm up here. I was motivated. I was doing real good in Mexico. My velocity was up, my confidence was there. Everything was clicking. From one day to another, my life changed."
Moved to the O's rotation out of necessity in early July -- the club had demoted three starters in the previous week -- Gonzalez has gone six or more innings in nine of his first 12 career Major League starts, posting a 3.03 ERA with the exclusion of an eight-out nightmare on July 25, a start Gonzalez made despite being ill the entire morning. Not wanting to draw attention or make it look like he was making excuses, Gonzalez -- who had two season-ending surgeries in the Minor Leagues -- gutted it out, discreetly telling the team's trainers after the game.
"The first day [Gonzalez] showed up, you could tell there was emotional control with him," said Baltimore pitching coach Rick Adair, who calls Gonzalez the most remarkable success story he's seen in 26 years as a pitching coach.
"What he's been through physically, how he's had to miss time [and] play winter ball, you automatically know there's something inwardly about this guy that not too many people have. Perseverance, I guess, in a very intense way. You knew coming in as a pitcher, there's an automatic trust factor that this guy is not only going to do great, he's going to be prepared to do great. ... I told him when he got here, I admire him. I do."
Gonzalez pitched to a 1.91 ERA in five August starts and has been better in hostile environments, posting an ERA nearly a run-and-a-half better on the road, including a game in Anaheim on July 6th, when he threw seven innings of one-run baseball against his hometown team. The inspired win -- his first career Major League start against the organization that initially signed him -- made headlines when Gonzalez revealed he had used a glove once belonging to late Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, a tribute to a friend and Minor League teammate.
But as rapid as his ascent with the Orioles seems, Gonzalez's journey from obscurity has been anything but an overnight sensation.
There is an age difference of nearly nine years between Gonzalez and fellow rookie pitcher Dylan Bundy, and for six weeks, Gonzalez was simultaneously the least-experienced and oldest member of the Orioles' rotation. It's a fact fitting of a career that has been littered with setbacks and late arrivals.
Born Miguel Angel Gonzalez in Pegueros, Jalisco, Mexico, Gonzalez's parents, Miguel and Noeimi, moved to San Fernando Valley, Calif., when Gonzalez was 4 years old to give their three children a better life. A groundskeeper who works at Loyola Marymount University, the elder Miguel would bring his two sons, Miguel Angel and German, to nearby fields to play baseball along with their uncle, Fernando Martin.
By the time his family found out about organized baseball in their area, Gonzalez was 12 years old and the oldest rookie on his Little League team. A year later, he tore a meniscus in his right knee, an injury Gonzalez pitched with for more than a decade until finally undergoing surgery in 2008. By that time, Gonzalez had just finished a winter season with Mazatlan, and while he never once appeared on any Angels' top prospects lists, the 23-year-old had made strides in his third season since being signed as an undrafted free agent, going 8-4 with a 3.38 ERA in 30 games (19 starts) for Double-A Arkansas.
Things sputtered from there. Gonzalez spent seven months rehabbing his knee and made his first appearance back for Mazatlan on Oct. 25, 2008, in hopes of catching up on a missed Minor League season. It was no surprise the Angels left him unprotected in that December's Rule 5 Draft, where Gonzalez was scooped up by the Boston Red Sox.
However, any hope of continuing a solid stint in winter ball went out the window in the spring, when Gonzalez was told he needed Tommy John surgery. The procedure cost Gonzalez all of 2009, and he never really rebounded in the Boston farm system. Gonzalez struggled (mostly at the Double-A level) and the Red Sox released him in the winter of 2011.
"One side of my brain was like, 'OK, this is it. You have to move on,'" Gonzalez said. "But I really thought about it, and I talked about it with my wife [Lucy] and she got me into it again, back to baseball. This is the only thing I know how to do. I love playing it. So I stayed within myself -- kept working, kept fighting."
The release was difficult to absorb even in Mexico, where Gonzalez was again pitching for Mazatlan. It hurt, but it also intensified his quest to prove others wrong. Finally fully healthy, Gonzalez's fastball was creeping up in the mid-90s for the first time in his career, and he was getting swings and misses he never had before. Gonzalez was still playing and being paid to do so, and he wasn't done just yet.
Even with Ferreira's recommendation, the Orioles -- the only team willing to give him a shot -- didn't get around to signing Gonzalez to a Minor League deal until March 4. He was late to camp, never appearing in big league Spring Training, and was virtually off the grid. Even when the Minor League season started, Gonzalez was kept in limbo, told to be patient as the organization sorted out where it was sending the top prospects and those who just missed making the big league roster. He was finally assigned to Triple-A Norfolk, joining first-year manager Ron Johnson for the club's ninth game of the season.
It wasn't how Johnson wanted to ease the new guy in, but the skipper didn't have much choice with an overworked bullpen. So he conferred with Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin and summoned Gonzalez in the bottom of the sixth inning with the bases loaded and Norfolk up, 1-0. Gonzalez retired the next seven batters. In his second outing, Gonzalez entered the game with runners on first and third and again delivered, this time with 3 2/3 scoreless innings that included six strikeouts.
Johnson was intrigued.
"This guy didn't have a job," Johnson said. "I kept waiting for his ERA to revert back to what it had been [in seasons past]. Then I started putting him in more regular relief spots. It was just nothing. He just got everybody out. That might be the greatest signing of the year."
With Baltimore's rotation struggling and Gonzalez flourishing -- posting a 1.04 ERA as a reliever -- the organization decided to stretch him out with more innings in mid-May so that he'd be an option as a starter.
It was harder than it seemed, given how Gonzalez is a pitcher who lives off fastball command and low pitch counts, and Griffin, who tries to foster camaraderie by having his pitchers all sit in a circle before every game and talk about something, started to wonder: who was this guy anyway?
Always quiet by nature, Gonzalez didn't want to attract any attention or ruffle any feathers on his first Triple-A team. He didn't even want to ask what time pregame stretching was, as if at any moment the O's would realize this was a mistake and Gonzalez would be gone.
"If you sit down and really have a conversation with Miguel about anything, he doesn't get excited a whole lot," Griffin said of Gonzalez, who had a 1.98 ERA in six Triple-A starts, and who was always the last guy in the circle to share. "It's just a flat-line demeanor, it's the best way I can describe it. Everything comes to him so slowly. We talk about the game speeding up on some pitchers where they can't get it back down. And that's the reason he's been so successful."
When you have waited as long as Gonzalez has for this, what's another few minutes?
A panic attack for Johnson, who got the call from the Orioles after his club's 6-4 win in Pawtucket, R.I., to send Gonzalez their way, led him to punch a few buttons on his phone and dial the wrong number. "No," the recipient said. "This wasn't Miguel and he wasn't going to the big leagues."
Perhaps Johnson should prank call someone else. They finally tracked down Gonzalez by calling the pitcher's hotel room in the middle of the night.
"I was jumping up and down," Gonzalez said, laughing. "Yes, the quiet guy that you know was jumping up and down. I had the chills. I will never forget that day. I just wish for other players that have had ups and downs, been struggling in the Minor Leagues, just to have patience. The dream can come true."
That dream came full circle on Sept. 11, when Gonzalez came jogging off the field after the O's pregame batting practice at Camden Yards. There was someone he had to meet, a man he needed to look in the eye and shake his hand and thank: Ferreira.
"What a great story," said Ferreira, after the pair had shared an emotional introduction. He has kept tabs on Gonzalez, getting messages from Duquette and manager Buck Showalter almost every time after the rookie pitches.
"[Ferreira] will be the first to tell you it was all Miguel," Showalter said. "Miguel never gave in, never quit trying."
Gonzalez, who will make his first Fenway Park start on Friday, and the Orioles are fighting for the American League East title, and every game is critical. He wouldn't have it any other way.
"I've always been the same guy everywhere I've been to," Gonzalez said. "Playing in Mexico, playing in the Minor Leagues, I've always been that confident guy -- never lost my confidence. I'm not afraid to pitch. I've done it my whole life. Why be afraid now?"
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.