TAMPA, Fla. – Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez’s long-awaited Phillies’ debut began auspiciously Saturday afternoon.
Facing the New York Yankees at Steinbrenner Field on a day when the home team unveiled its big, free-agent addition, Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, Gonzalez struck out the first two batters he faced.
Things did not go so smoothly after that.
Gonzalez, who defected from Cuba last year, had trouble throwing strikes the remainder of his outing and did not make it through his scheduled two innings. He was removed from the game after throwing 51 pitches in 1 2/3 innings. He allowed two hits, one run, walked four and struck out two.
Gonzalez’s two strikeouts came against Corban Joseph (six career big-league at-bats) and minor-leaguer Mason Williams. In all, four of the outs that Gonzalez recorded came against Joseph and Williams. Only one of his outs came against an established big-league hitter – a groundout by Brian Roberts. Six of the seven big-leaguers that Gonzalez faced reached base. He gave up singles to Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki and walked Derek Jeter, Brian McCann, Francisco Cervelli and Kelly Johnson.
Despite the control problems, Gonzalez was pleased with his performance.
“It’s a great first time out,” he said through Jorge Velandia, a Phillies’ minor-league coach who served as an interpreter for the 27-year-old pitcher.
“I felt good. I felt strong. I wasn’t as sharp as I wanted to be. There were a couple of pitches I left up. Pretty much, for the first time, I felt good.”
Other than a couple of showcases in Mexico last summer, Gonzalez had not pitched competitively since early 2012. He had elbow surgery (bone chips) that year then was suspended after a failed attempt to defect. He successfully defected last year and impressed Phillies scouts in showcases. The club initially agreed to sign him for $48 million, but the sum was quartered and he signed for $12 million when health concerns were raised during a physical exam with team doctors.
Those concerns really have not gone away this spring. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said Gonzalez had experienced some arm tightness at times and the right-hander’s bullpen workouts had not wowed observers (see story).
After Saturday’s outing, Gonzalez said his arm felt “fine.” He also said he expected the velocity on his fastball to get better. He threw one 93 mph fastball in the first inning. After that, his fastball was mostly 89-91 mph and he had trouble throwing it for strikes. That’s not the power arm that was advertised when the Phillies signed Gonzalez last summer.
“I’m not happy at all,” Gonzalez said of his velocity. “I’m not satisfied at all. I believe I have some more in the tank. It should be coming around.”
When Gonzalez signed in August, Amaro described the pitcher as having “great stuff.” Amaro also said Phillies scouts had seen Gonzalez’s fastball range from 93 to 97 miles per hour.
It didn’t reach that range Saturday, but manager Ryne Sandberg saw progress.
“The first inning was the best pop we’ve seen this spring,” Sandberg said. “There was more velocity than we’ve seen in side sessions.
“He started to labor in the second inning, but the pitches he did throw for strikes looked like they had some quality to them. He had some rust, but overall this was a nice atmosphere to see him in. It was a pretty big stage. He showed some good off-speed stuff. He needs to fine-tune his fastball as far as command.”
Gonzalez threw many off-speed pitches – curveballs and changeups.
“I realized my fastball wasn’t sharp location-wise,” he said. “I went to the secondary stuff and it was working for me.
“What I need to do is just get my timing back and keep on pitching. It will come along. The more I pitch, the better I will feel.”
It remains unclear whether Gonzalez will open the season in the majors or go to the minors to build innings and experience.
He will answer that question with his performance the remainder of spring training.
“We’ll continue to watch him,” Sandberg said.