No mystery about Gonzalez's motivation to do well

Posted: March 05, 2014

CLEARWATER, Fla. - The man with three names goes about his business like every other pitcher at the Carpenter Complex.

He throws his bullpen sessions and heads to the weight room. He sits at his locker stall and chats with his teammates.

Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez remains the International Man of Mystery in Clearwater, even 2 days after throwing in a game for the first time since landing on American soil late last summer.

But here's one very small piece of information about the 27-year-old Cuban righthander:

He doesn't go by "Miggy" or "Fredo," or even "Alf." His teammates call him "Gonzo."

The Phillies hope to learn a little bit more about Gonzalez in the final 4 weeks of camp. Gonzalez, meanwhile, is just attempting to fit in with his teammates and establish himself as a capable pitcher in the major leagues, where the best of the best from all over the world come to compete.

"That's why I'm here," Gonzalez said through a translator yesterday.

Gonzalez took his first significant step of the spring on Saturday. He allowed one run on two hits while walking four and striking out two in 1 2/3 innings against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, where fellow international free agent Masahiro Tanaka also made his debut.

On the postgame box score, the walks stood out. But the people evaluating his every move saw positives in Gonzalez, too.

"He might be one of those guys that's not the best practice player, but you put him in a game, and he competes his ass off," pitching coach Bob McClure said. "For not pitching in a couple of years, having a major injury, and first game against the Yankees, I thought he was pretty good. Command wasn't - but the intangibles [were]. Those are the things you look for."

"I saw a pretty good breaking ball, a pretty good split," general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "His command wasn't good enough, and he knows it. But as far as his first time out, I think this is going to be a process for him. I think he handled the situation pretty well. Mentally, it looked like he was poised and handled the situation pretty well."

The Phillies hope to see gradual progress in the pitcher this spring. Gonzalez will pitch again Thursday in Lakeland against Miguel Cabrera and the Detroit Tigers.

But Gonzalez is unlike any other in camp: He has pitched sparingly in the last 2 years after having bone chips removed from his elbow (January 2012) and while serving a suspension after a failed defection from Cuba.

When he arrived in Clearwater last September, Gonzalez was dealing with both the culture shock of adjusting to a new home and the physical adjustment of getting his arm in gear to throw competitively again.

"Two years after coming back and throwing again," Gonzalez said, "it was weird."

The Phillies eased Gonzalez' transition in the fall, limiting his work to one session off the mound.

"The most difficult thing is to get back to being myself, to control myself and find my release point, that kind of stuff," Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez also battled some tightness in his pitching arm earlier this spring, which Amaro said was the result of his adjustment to the daily stretching programs that are routine with big-league pitchers. Gonzalez rebounded from Saturday's game without issue by throwing a side bullpen session yesterday.

He's ready to pick up the pace and compete for a roster spot this month.

Gonzalez, who signed a 3-year, $12 million deal in August, is on the short list of candidates competing for a spot in the starting rotation. Fellow free agent Roberto Hernandez, who threw three scoreless innings yesterday against the Rays, is the front-runner for the fifth starting job.

"I feel stronger now, after working on everything down here," Gonzalez said. "Mentally, it's better, too."

Gonzalez doesn't speak English, but he understands the questions people have, since he was largely an unknown as a person and player before arriving in camp. But the Phillies understand where the rookie righthander is, too, and are practicing patience with the pitcher.

"You can do your side work, but it's facing real hitters [when you'll know], and that takes a while," McClure said. "You haven't pitched in a while competitively and now you're in the major leagues. It'd be like [a reporter] taking 2, 2 1/2 years off. And then someone calls you and says we need you at the White House with the president in 2 weeks, and you're going to be one of the press guys there. It's going to be a little while . . . You're not going to feel completely yourself. You know you can do it, but you're still wondering how it'll go."

Four weeks from Opening Day, Gonzalez said he felt fine yesterday. The Phillies will still have plenty of opportunities to see the pitcher grow into himself this spring.

"He has a great demeanor and he's been tremendously coachable," Amaro said. "He's a good athlete, he moves off the mound well. He has a good baseball mind, knows what he wants to do. He was pretty steady [on Saturday]. I don't think he was happy with his performance. He knows he has to pitch better than that to compete for a job in the major leagues. I'm glad he was a little [ticked] off at himself. That's kind of what you want. You want a guy to expect excellence from himself."


On Twitter: @ryanlawrence21

Blog: ph.ly/HighCheese

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