'Balanced' Gonzalez belongs in Boston
It was the sixth inning. Dan Haren and the Angels were beating the then-struggling Red Sox, 1-0. Two out. Jacoby Ellsbury on second.
"The idea," Adrian Gonzalez explained two days later, studying the video of his at-bats against Haren, then leading the American League in earned run average, "was to get the run in and let the game unfold from there."
Gonzalez figured Haren might try to get ahead with something down and away, something Gonzalez couldn't drive. What he got was one of Haren's nasty splits, down and away. Gonzalez reached as if he were returning serve and sent a soft line drive through the shortstop hole into left field, enough for the fastest player on the team to score, easily.
By the time Gonzalez came back up, it was 3-1 Red Sox, eighth inning, none on, none out. Gonzalez figured Haren would go back to the way he usually started him, cutter in. That's what Haren threw, and Gonzalez pulled it in the air for a home run. 4-1. End of Haren's night.
Last Monday night, the Red Sox had trailed the Orioles, 6-0, then battled back to 7-6 in the ninth. Kevin Gregg came in for the close, but with one out he walked Ellsbury. In the middle of a nine-pitch at-bat by Dustin Pedroia, Ellsbury stole second, and Pedroia eventually fought his way to a walk, putting the winning run on base.
Understand, the temperature was in the 40s, with a northeast wind whipping in from center field, and through two rain delays, nothing carried. Gonzalez promptly got a ball away, flipped it up in the air to left, where it somehow carried through the elements, hit high on The Wall, and Pedroia raced around from first giving the Red Sox a dramatic 8-7 walk-off win. "How he hit the ball that easily and had it carry that far, I'll never understand," said Pedroia. "But, man, he can really hit. He's really fun to watch."
The operative word for Adrian Gonzalez is "balanced." At the plate, with his head still, ability to stay back and Van Cliburn hands. In the field, where the game seems to slow down. In the clubhouse, where one coach says "he clearly can someday be a manager because he sees the game. He is very smart and he has such unusual people skills."
Balanced in every way, much in the manner of which John McPhee wrote of Bill Bradley playing basketball at Princeton in his epic "A Sense of Where You Are." Gonzalez knows precisely who and what he is, and why where he is now is the right place for a 29-year-old with his skill set to be.
"I have come," he says, repeatedly, "to the right place."
There are adjustments that have to be made, and he is making them. He is adjusting to the first third of the season being played in what amounts to a Yukon Spring. He has 41 RBIs, most in the Majors. He leads the Majors in RBIs from the seventh inning on. He is in the top four in batting average and OPS. "My numbers should be based on RBIs," he says like this generation's Eddie Murray.
He's 12-for-22 (.545) with two outs and runners in scoring position. He has homered to left and pulled balls into the bullpen in right-center.
And, does he love to throw. In the May 1 game with the Angels, with Boston leading, 3-2, in the sixth inning, Torii Hunter doubled. Alberto Callaspo grounded to first base, Gonzalez broke in, fired to third, cut down Hunter and got the biggest out of the game. "Hey, I was a pretty good pitcher in high school," he says. "My ball moved all over the place. Great location. Unfortunately, I threw 75."
Unlike most first basemen, Gonzalez will throw to any base at any time, with conviction. After the throw to nail Hunter, he was disappointed he didn't get asked about the play. In San Francisco two years ago, he made a play where he kicked the first-base bag and nailed Pedro Feliz at third. He didn't get asked about that in his walk-off TV interview, either.
He studies every opposing pitcher on video and watches everyone and everything live, "the Greg Maddux of hitters" as some called him in San Diego. He appreciates the biorhythms of the game. Hey, when he played first base in Kane County in 2001, with Josh Wilson at second, Miguel Cabrera at short and Josh Willingham at third, Gonzo was the top hitter in batting average and second in homers.
It took his third trade to get him to Fenway Park, where in the seven years of his contract, healthy, he could easily hit more than 200 homers, knock in 800-something runs and approach a steady .950-1.000 OPS level.
"That's being conservative," says Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan. "He can be one of the greatest hitters to ever play in this park. He's learning this place."
Indeed, on May 21, his batting average was 28 points higher on the road, his OPS 182 points higher on the road.
What the Red Sox learned from the beginning of Spring Training is that Gonzalez can also be a force in the development of young Latin players. In Fort Myers, he mentored the extraordinarily talented Yamaico Navarro and closely followed Navarro's blossoming on-base/pitch recognition skills the first month in Pawtucket. When Jose Iglesias was recalled, he lockered next to Gonzalez.
"What baseball people often don't realize when they lose patience with young Latin players swinging at so many bad pitches early in their careers," said Gonzalez, "is that in Mexico and Venezuela and the Dominican, the umpires have ridiculously large strike zones. They call everything strikes. So kids grow up with those strike zones and think they have to swing at everything. It takes time and patience for the clubs to allow those kids to adjust to the American baseball culture."
That is balanced thinking that got the entire development staff thinking.
And as he further learns his environs and increases his sense of where he is, Adrian Gonzalez most likely will become the ballast of the team for whom he was born to hit.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.