OAKLAND, Calif. — Orioles injured closer Michael Gonzalez understands the fan's frustrations because he shares them.
After signing a two-year, $12 million deal with the Orioles this offseason, he envisioned being one of the solutions in the team's long-time quest to solidify its bullpen. But Gonzalez blew two of his first three save opportunities, was booed off the mound in the home opener last Friday at Camden Yards, and essentially relieved of his closing duties on the fifth day of the season.
Now, he's on the disabled list with a strained left shoulder, unable to redeem himself for his three rocky outings, and powerless to help the club break from a seven-game losing streak and the team's worst start to a season since they went 0-21 in 1988.
"The truth is, I'm a professional and I totally understand the frustration of the fans," said Gonzalez in a phone interview from Baltimore on Thursday night. "I was brought here to close the door. I've done it before. I know I can do it and I haven't gotten it done. But I'm focused on the team right now. They grinded, and we were right there and I didn't shut the door. That's what I'm most frustrated about, but I know I can do this."
Gonzalez will need to get healthy first. The 31-year-old will fly to the team's minor league complex in Sarasota, Fla. on Monday to begin a rehabilitation process that will keep the reliever out for at least three weeks.
Having already had Tommy John ligament-reconstruction surgery on his left elbow in 2007, Gonzalez said that he was relieved when a magnetic resonance imaging that he had performed on his left shoulder Thursday showed only wear-and-tear and no new injury.
"The best thing about it is we talked to all the doctors, to [head athletic trainer] Richie Bancells, and I'm not going to need surgery," Gonzalez said. "The big thing is for the inflammation to go down. After four of five days of not doing anything, it should be calmed down. When I don't feel any pain, I'll start playing catch. It's only going to take two or three days of playing catch before I'll get my rhythm back. I need to be healthy to help this team out. That's what I have to focus on."
Gonzalez maintained that the shoulder strain was a "recent" injury that reared on Tuesday while he was warming up to enter the game in the late innings against the Tampa Bay Rays. He denied that his arm was hurting him during spring training and was the root of his struggles in his first three outings in which he allowed four earned runs, five hits and four walks in just two innings.
Gonzalez repeatedly told reporters and manager Dave Trembley and pitching coach Rick Kranitz this spring that he was healthy, even though his velocity was well below normal and his command was spotty at best. The left-handed reliever was sidelined for a while with a back injury, but he rebuked any questions about the health of his arm.
He reiterated again on Thursday that his struggles were caused by him simply trying to do too much and letting his mechanics get out of whack. Then came the injury.
"You talk about being snake bitten? After [those outings], I wanted to get right back on the mound and help my team, but my shoulder wouldn't allow it," said Gonzalez . "It seemed like I threw a lot of pitches the first four days and it got some inflammation. It's one of those things like, ‘Are you kidding me?' But I'm going to take the positive out of it that I don't need surgery and I'm definitely going to use this time to get myself right."
Gonzalez said the low point of his early tenure with the Orioles was not getting booed both in the pregame introductions and in the ninth inning of Opening Day at Camden Yards, but having to tell bullpen coach Alan Dunn to call down to the dugout and inform Trembley that he was unavailable to pitch late in the game on Tuesday.
Gonzalez, who had returned to the team earlier in the day after witnessing the birth of his first child (a daughter) in Arizona, couldn't get loose in the bullpen Instead, Trembley called on Matt Albers, who walked two batters and then allowed a three-run homer to Carlos Pena in the Orioles' eventual 8-6 loss in 10 innings to the Rays.
"My concern wasn't that [the pain] was unbearable, but because of the discomfort, I wasn't able to throw the ball where I wanted to," Gonzalez said. "The hardest thing I could say is that I couldn't go. I've never had to do that. Matt Albers wasn't ready to go and he had to go in there. That was my turn. [His struggles] hit me hard. That hit me more than not being able to go out there and throw."
Gonzalez, who spoke while watching the Orioles' 6-2 loss to Oakland last night, accepted the blame for the team's poor start. He said that no only did he cost the team two victories, but his struggles cast doubt in the other player's minds, and created uncertainty within the bullpen. But he still feels that there is enough time left this season to get things turned around and do what he was brought to Baltimore to do.
"I'm definitely frustrated with the situation, but then again, I have three weeks to get healthy and to join the guys," he said. "What they're going through right now, I wish I could be there with them. I'm going to focus on getting myself ready to bring some positive spark when I come back. I have to get it together, get healthy, get my mind right so I can be a positive spark to these guys."