Gonzalez likely out as closer until delivery is fixed

April 11, 2010|By Peter Schmuck

Orioles manager Dave Trembley wouldn't come right out and say it, but you won't be getting another chance to boo Michael Gonzalez at the start of the ninth inning for a while.

Gonzalez is going back to the proverbial drawing board with pitching coach Rick Kranitz, and he probably will pitch only in nonpressure situations until he proves that he has corrected the mechanical flaws that have diminished his velocity and led to a pair of ugly blown saves.

Is this official?

It's as official as it's going to get, because Trembley does not want to get any more specific about the situation and Orioles officials are not willing to say on the record that Gonzalez is going to be the closer in exile for - hopefully - only a short while.

"I would caution everyone [not] to jump to conclusions about giving up on Mike Gonzalez," Trembley said Saturday. "It's been four games. These guys that are closers, the focus is on them, and rightfully so. They're responsible to a large degree for the outcome of the game, but I would caution everyone [against] writing the epitaph of Gonzalez."

Fair enough, but it's also fair to make a comparison to a situation that Trembley alluded to during his pre-game press briefing. The Orioles faced a similar - though not quite as dramatic - problem last May with left-hander George Sherrill, whose effectiveness came into question when the Orioles were swept in three games in Toronto.

Trembley was slightly more public about it that time, announcing that Sherrill could no longer take his place at the back of the bullpen entirely for granted.

Sherrill wasn't in quite the fix that Gonzalez finds himself in. It was a month into the season and Sherrill had succeeded in four of six save opportunities, but he wasn't the same pitcher he had been the season before and Trembley pushed him to take a hard look at himself and his approach.

Whether it was the challenge from the manager or the extra work in the bullpen, Sherrill quickly snapped out of his funk and pitched very well until he was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for third base prospect Josh Bell and pitching prospect Steve Johnson.

Gonzalez is beyond the pep talk stage. The Orioles have more to worry about than his psyche. They've got a young team that could have been 3-1 going into Saturday night's game, and they can't afford a teamwide letdown at the start of a particularly grueling April schedule.

Trembley and Kranitz hunkered down Friday night and studied video of Gonzalez's delivery from last season. They apparently noticed some mechanical differences between what he was doing then and what he has been doing in an Orioles uniform.

I don't know whether to give them credit for jumping on the problem so quickly during the regular season or give them hell for not noticing that anything was amiss during training camp, but they brought it to Gonzalez's attention, and he agreed that he needed to get his mechanics in order.

"We told him that today - 'You've got to get yourself straightened out mechanically,' " Trembley said. "He agrees with it. He said he went home last night and re-evaluated himself. He said the way he has thrown in the bullpen is nowhere near what he's doing when he comes out on the mound. He is a guy that falls off [the mound], but he's fallen off way too soon. I told him today, 'Hey, you've got to get yourself straight mechanically with Kranitz.' It might take a day. It might take two sessions. He said, 'I understand it, I appreciate it, I'm going to work at it.' "

Don't misunderstand. This isn't a two-day tuneup. It's going to take some bullpen sessions and some middle-relief appearances before Gonzalez gets the ball back in a save situation.

"I want to be out there, of course, and I definitely feel I can get the job done," Gonzalez said. "I definitely have confidence in my stuff. I really feel ... after working on these couple of things, it's just very slight things, but enough to put the ball where I want to."

In the meantime, the Orioles have to figure out what do with the closer role. They could go back to Jim Johnson, who did not get comfortable in the role last season, or they could just play matchup baseball and go with a bullpen by committee.

The picture might get clearer today when they make a roster decision regarding injured second baseman Brian Roberts. If he goes on the disabled list, the club could bring up a reliever to bolster the bullpen for a few days.

If that happens, that pitcher would likely be Kam Mickolio or Alberto Castillo, though either would require permission from the commissioner's office since both were optioned less than 10 days ago and neither matches the position of the injured player being replaced on the 25-man roster.

Whatever happens, Plan A has been put on hold for a while, and Plan B will likely become apparent as circumstances develop.

The one thing that's certain is that the Orioles did not want to be overhauling their bullpen on the first weekend of the regular season.

Trembley defended Gonzalez after he was booed by Orioles fans Friday, and he remains protective of his new closer.

"He knows he hasn't lived up to what everybody thought," Trembley said, "but he's got a long time to catch up for it. I certainly hope people will be patient and give him another chance."

Listen to Peter Schmuck when he hosts Sportsline on WBAL Radio (1090 AM) and check out his blog "The Schmuck Stops Here" at www.baltimoresun.com/schmuck blog.

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