SARASOTA, Fla. — When he was in this same clubhouse rehabilitating a shoulder injury six months ago, Orioles reliever Michael Gonzalez was battling several emotions.
He was disappointed in himself for blowing two of his first three save opportunities. He regretted not taking the pain in his left shoulder more seriously. Above all, he was frustrated with being unable to help his new teammates as they went through one of the worst stretches in Orioles history.
"I definitely don't like thinking about what happened last year," Gonzalez said Sunday. "It was definitely a disaster for me, very disappointing. But I'm looking at how I finished last year. I finished on a great note, and I brought that positive attitude to the offseason."
On this day, Gonzalez sat at his corner locker, resting comfortably against the wall and occasionally taking a sip of coffee from a Styrofoam cup. He appeared content and relaxed — unlike at any point last spring, when he struggled through his early bullpen sessions, an ominous sign of things to come.
He has thrown three bullpen sessions already this spring, impressing catcher Matt Wieters, who said that the left-hander was spotting his pitches on both sides of the plate with ease.
"I'm 32 years old," Gonzalez said. "I'm not going to lie to you and tell you that I feel like I'm 20 again. That's not the case. I can't tell you I feel the best I have in my life. I can say that I feel the best I feel for 32, man. I really busted my butt, and I really worked hard in the offseason with my shoulder. I don't know how I look from the outside, but I feel like I'm night and day. Just the release point, the way my arm is, the way I'm throwing my bullpens, I feel night and day from how I felt last year. I'm in a positive mode. I feel really good about it."
The Orioles signed Gonzalez to a two-year, $12 million deal before the 2010 season, hoping that he would become their shutdown closer. Now, they'd be more than satisfied if he developed into a reliable setup man capable of neutralizing tough left-handed hitters and complementing right-handed relievers Jim Johnson, Koji Uehara and Kevin Gregg at the back end of the Orioles' bullpen.
"When he came back healthy, he pitched well for us. He pitched more along the lines of what we expected when we signed him," Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail said. "He's an important component. He's demonstrated that when he's on, he's mighty tough."
In 26 games after coming off the disabled list in 2010, Gonzalez compiled a 2.78 ERA, allowing seven earned runs in 222/3 innings and stranding 18 of 19 inherited runners. He didn't surrender a run in his final seven outings.
"I wish I could tell you I felt great, but I didn't," said Gonzalez, whose injury was diagnosed as a shoulder strain. "I wish I would have had another month. When we finished the season, I was just feeling like I was getting going. My velocity was coming up, my command was much better. You could see the numbers."
The strong finish took some of the sting out of his brutal first couple of months as an Oriole, which started here last spring. Gonzalez labored through bullpen sessions, and once the Grapefruit League season began, his fastball was clocked in the low to mid-80s. He also was getting regular treatments on his back.
However, despite those things, he insisted to team officials, teammates and reporters that he was healthy, that he was saving his best for the regular season and that he would be ready when the bright lights came on.
On Opening Day 2010 against the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field, Gonzalez entered in the ninth inning with a one-run lead. He got just one out before giving up a game-ending two-run single to Carl Crawford. Two nights later, he converted a one-run save, but not before loading the bases.
The following day before a capacity crowd at Camden Yards for the season opener, Gonzalez blew another save opportunity and was booed off the mound. It would be 31/2 months before he took a big league mound again. Gonzalez said the boos didn't bother him as much as letting down his teammates.
"I definitely learned last year about talking a little bit too much, about saying, 'When the lights come on, I'll be ready,'" Gonzalez said. "The thing is, for the last 10 years in my professional career, when the lights turn on, I am ready. It wasn't a big deal for me to go and say that. I don't worry about spring training just for the fact that the last eight years, I'm throwing 84 to 86 [mph] and once the game days start, I'm anywhere between 93 to 96. There wasn't any doubt in my mind. I don't want to say I regret that, but when you can do it consistently eight, nine years in a row, then why isn't it going to happen this year?"