Unorthodox delivery is Gonzalez’s first step toward reclaiming bullpen role

VIERA, Fla. - It’s hard to believe any pitching coach or manager would look at the sheer force behind the unorthodox delivery employed by Nationals lefty reliever Michael Gonzalez and whisper to a young hurler, “Just do what he does.”

That’s because what Gonzalez does is so unusual, such a tangle of arms and legs in perpetual and powerful motion, that it hardly seems possible that it’s successful.

But there was Gonzalez on Friday in his first Grapefruit League game of the spring, taking the first steps toward reclaiming a spot in the Nationals bullpen. The results weren’t exactly pretty - one inning pitched, two hits and two runs - but the veteran reliever said the outing represented a starting point.

“I felt good, man,” Gonzalez said afterward. “Just to get back in there and just get back into the groove of things. I thought my rhythm was good, I thought my aggressiveness was good. Excited about the outing. Obviously, you never want to give up runs, but the way the shoulder feels, the way the arm feels altogether, the rhythm - I feel like I’m back at it.”

Every time someone’s tried to tinker, change or correct Gonzalez’s delivery, there have been consequences. Take 2010, for example - that’s the year he inked a two-year, $12 million deal to close for the Baltimore Orioles. Changing leagues was enough of a problem, but when he struggled at the start of the season, the O’s brass thought it would behoove him to alter his violent windup.

Suffice it to say, things didn’t go well. Late in 2011, after he had notched only two saves in 78 appearances, the Orioles peddled him to the Rangers. He went back to the National League the following season, signing as a free agent with the Nats in May and establishing himself as a key member of a playoff team’s bullpen. He’s stayed in the National League since, and returned to the Nationals on March 4 on a minor league deal with an invitation to big league spring training.

The Gonzalez who pitched in Lakeland yesterday was the vintage model, pushed over to the far left of the rubber, tilted at an awkward angle as he read the catcher’s signs, an explosion of windup and release so pronounced that he almost stumbles off the mound toward the third base line.

But there’s a method to the unusual delivery that’s perplexed so many during his 11 major league seasons. In the exaggerated madness, Gonzalez finds what makes him a good pitcher when he’s at the top of his game.

“I’ve always done that,” he said. “In fact, I sometimes exaggerate a little too much. I’m always at the end of the rubber and get that back bend just to get my rhythm going.”

Once he gets going, he can’t really stop. But the whole weird set-up - the location, the lean, the flailing arms and legs - is what gives the pitcher his power. And the odd delivery doesn’t hurt his deception, and that’s every pitcher’s best friend.

Asked his opinion of Gonzalez’s first outing against big league hitters this spring, Nationals manager Matt Williams said, “He can throw a strike at any time he wants to throw a strike. His breaking ball was a little bit flat, but again, this was his first time out there. To be expected. He looked good to me.”

With a runner on first via a leadoff single and one out, Gonzalez briefly ran into some problems against lefty swinging Tyler Collins of the Tigers. He sailed a pitch over Collins’ head, allowing the runner to advance on the wild pitch, before Collins crushed a ball into the gap in right-center for a run-scoring triple. A fly ball brought Collins home with the final run of a 12-6 loss, but Gonzalez got right-handed hitting Eugenio Suarez swinging at a breaking ball that dipped into the dirt.

That positive ending was enough to make up for the trouble Gonzalez had throwing breaking pitches to left-handed batters, which is supposed to be a southpaw’s bread and butter. In his career, the 35-year-old has held lefty swingers to a .219 average.

“It’s to be expected,” he explained. “I hadn’t really snapped them off. The good thing was that I got to finish off with a really good breaking pitch to a righty. Got it in the dirt where I wanted it. The other two, I left up, trying to put on a little more, but that’s what comes last. I felt really good with the last breaking pitch down in the dirt and I got the right-hander to swing through it. Again, I feel like it was a positive outing.”

Today’s quote of the day, written atop the daily schedule sheet: “Individual commitment to a group effort. That is what makes a team successful.”

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