It probably barely registered at all with Orioles fans when the club signed a right-handed pitcher named Miguel Gonzalez to a minor league contract after spring training had already started last year on Feb. 28.
Little did we know how big a role he would play for the 2012 Orioles. How he would become one of their key starters late in the year and how he would go on to give up just one run in seven innings in Game 3 of the American League Division Series in Yankee Stadium. How over nine starts last August and September he would go 5-2 with a 2.76 ERA. How over his last three starts, when every game was so big, Gonzalez would go 3-0 with an ERA of 1.83 against Boston, Toronto and Tampa Bay.
Gonzalez revealed recently that the Orioles were not the only team looking to sign him late last February.
“There were a couple of other teams,” he said. “The Astros, the Dodgers, the Cubs and Pirates were interested. But I am happy where I am right now.”
So what led him to take the O’s offer over those other clubs?
“I guess better opportunity and the guys here didn’t think about it twice to sign me,” he said. “Some of the others were waiting and that is what my agent wanted to do (sign with the Orioles). I am happy he made that choice.”
So are O’s fans, after Gonzalez went 9-4 with a 3.25 ERA over 18 games, 15 starts. He recorded a quality start in 10 of 15 outings and went 3-1 with an ERA of 1.91 in August, the third-best ERA in the AL that month.
The story goes that Fred Ferreira, the Orioles executive director, international recruiting, watched this native of Guadalajara, Mexico, pitch in the Mexican League last winter and recommended his signing. Is that how it happened?
“He was one of them,” Gonzalez said. “I heard that (pitcher Luis) Ayala talked about me, too. I want to thank those guys and my agent for helping me out.”
Gonzalez doesn’t seem like the type to sit back for long and enjoy his 2012 success, but one fringe benefit of his year was that he didn’t need to pitch in winter ball over this past offseason in Mexico with the goal to earn a job with a club.
“Most of the time I go down to Mexico and play there, so I don’t have an offseason. This winter, I was able to spend some quality time with my family and take some time off. Who doesn’t want that and then knowing you have a job this year. That was big for me,” he said.
Gonzalez had gone 0-5 with an ERA of 6.17 for Portland of the Double-A Eastern League in 2011, and he threw a total of 56 2/3 innings. He had missed the entire 2008-09 seasons due to injuries, before finally getting his big league chance with the Orioles.
So what was the big difference for him last season? Was it just being fully healthy?
“Health and guys here just pump you up,” the 28-year-old Gonzalez said. “They tell you to get after it and they keep it loose. Having Matt Wieters back there just made it easier for me as a pitcher. I got my confidence back and I think that was the most important thing.”
You have to figure that AL hitters now have a decent scouting report on Gonzalez and that could make it tougher for him this season.
“I think I just need to do what I did last year. Keep that confidence and just throw strikes and keep hitters off balance. That is most important for me. Baseball is so tough. You can have bad days but your mind has to really concentrate. The mental part is big,” he said.
So is pitching with such poise and looking unflappable on the mound. Gonzalez sure did that last year and he won road games at Los Angeles, Boston, Cleveland, Tampa and New York against the Yankees twice. He was 6-2 with a 2.74 ERA away from Camden Yards.
“Think I got a lot of experience playing with older guys everywhere I went,” he said, explaining how he came to be so poised on the mound. “That kept me mellow when I pitch. In Mexico there are some veteran guys that have played in the big leagues.
“My catcher was Miguel Ojeda, he played down there a while and in the big leagues for about five years. He knew what he was doing and I learned a lot from him.”
Lessons learned in Mexico that have played very well for him in the majors.