Meet Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Phillies pitcher

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Meet Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, Phillies pitcher

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The first thing you notice about Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez is the classic pitcher’s body. He is tall -- 6-foot-3 -- and lean, and has the kind of long, whippy arm that impresses scouts and makes general managers reach for their checkbooks.

The next thing you notice about Gonzalez is the pained look on his face when he talks about defecting from his homeland, Cuba, earlier this year to chase his dream of pitching in the major leagues.

“It has been tough being away from my family,” he said in Spanish. “It has definitely been tough. I have no regrets, the distance between me and my family -- my mother, aunts, cousins -- is the only thing.”

For security reasons, Gonzalez does not say much more about his defection, but as the conversation turns to the international language of baseball and his new baseball home -- Philadelphia -- the hint of a smile appears on his face.

“I feel like the change has been a good one,” he said.

This conversation with Gonzalez occurred Thursday at the Phillies’ spring-training complex in Clearwater. Six weeks earlier, the 27-year-old, power-arm right-hander signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Phillies.

“I hope he slides into our rotation for 2014,” general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said on the day the deal was finalized. “Great stuff. We’ll see how it translates at the major-league level.”

With a translating assist from Ray Robles, the Phillies’ coordinator of international operations, Gonzalez spoke with Philadelphia-based reporters for the first time Thursday. He talked about his hopes and dreams, his health and his style of pitching.

“I have several pitches,” he said. “Fastball, curveball, changeup, cutter, splitter.”

He paused.

“Knuckleball. Sinker.”

Knuckleball?

Si.”

That’s more than several.

***

Gonzalez said he’s able to use any of those pitches in a game. He was asked how he decided which pitch to throw and his answer was that of an educated baseball man.

“Every day is different,” he said. “The hitter will show you what kind of pitch you want to throw.

“The main thing for me is location, getting the pitches where I want them.”

That comment provided a good segue.

Gonzalez, who pitched in two World Cup tournaments for Cuba, was suspended from his national team after a failed attempt to defect in 2012. He has pitched only a handful of competitive innings in the last 18 months, mostly during a showcase for major-league clubs this summer in Mexico. When is this guy going to get on a bullpen mound and show off some of that repertoire? He has spent the last month conditioning his body and arm but has yet to throw off a bullpen mound.

Joe Jordan, the Phillies’ director of player development, said the plan was for Gonzalez to throw off a mound in the next week or 10 days, then move into an offseason conditioning program before starting a pre-spring training throwing program in January.

“Initially we were thinking we were going to get him into bullpens, but we decided it just wasn’t the right thing to do,” Jordan said. “He had gone on this lengthy tour throwing for teams and showcasing himself. Then he took six weeks off before we signed him. We decided there was no need to accelerate him just so we could see a bullpen.

“We decided to slow him down and get him a good base, start him from the ground up -- conditioning program, shoulder program, long-toss. He’s been 100 percent committed.

“Once spring training starts, he’s going to be familiar with what we do to prepare and condition the arm, the shoulder. We’ve gotten through that so it won’t be as foreign when spring training starts.”

Gonzalez didn’t have a problem with the Phillies’ taking the slow road because he encountered some hurdles when he cranked up his arm after the layoff.

“I didn’t feel quite there yet,” he said. “I didn’t feel coordinated.”

He’s throwing long-toss at 120 feet now and feels …

“Excellent,” he said. “I am finally finding myself again. A year and a half not pitching … I wasn’t coordinated and with a month of training here, I feel like I’m coming back."


***

Questions remain.

For instance, will Gonzalez be ready to compete for a spot next to Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee in the starting rotation in mid-February?

Minor-league pitching coordinator Carlos Arroyo, who has been with Gonzalez for a month, said yes.

So did Jordan.

So did Gonzalez.

“Slowing him down was the best thing to happen,” Arroyo said. “It got him to understand how we work and how to become a professional and take care of his arm.

“He’s healthy and sound.”

Gonzalez has had arm issues. He had bone chips surgically removed from his elbow in January 2012. Many pitchers have that surgery in their careers, and Gonzalez said he received an excellent procedure and is 100 percent healthy.

However, the Phillies clearly had some level of concern about Gonzalez’s health. The two sides initially agreed on a six-year, $48 million contract in July, but it was reworked after Gonzalez was examined by Phillies doctors.

“No comment,” Gonzalez said about the reworked deal.

If Gonzalez is as good as scouts think he can be, he will make plenty of money in this game. Amaro said Phillies’ scouts believe Gonzalez can become a No. 2 or 3 starter. The Phils need guys like that -- and soon. As of right now, they have only two sure-things in the 2014 rotation -- Hamels and Lee.

“It will be very exciting to pitch with them,” Gonzalez said. “It will be an extra help for me. It stimulates me to become better and become like them.”

***

Gonzalez will become the fourth Cuban defector to pitch for the Phillies, joining Eddie Oropesa, Danys Baez and Jose Contreras. Recently, Gonzalez has drawn inspiration from countrymen Yeonis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig, two of his contemporaries who have gone on to become offensive forces for the Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Dodgers, respectively.

Gonzalez fantasizes about facing them in a major-league game.

“It will be something spectacular,” he said. “Their success feels like my own because they are Cuban and they are friends.”

Gonzalez was asked whether he believed he could be an impact player like his two friends.

“Nobody knows that yet,” he said.

What do you feel in your heart?

“I feel good, confident and I feel like I’m capable,” he said. “But the future cannot be predicted. You have to do it and let things flow.

“Right now I’m just focused on my work, my job and helping my team. I’m focused on the great opportunity that it is to play for the Phillies. That’s what I am most gracious about.”

Tonight's lineup: Herrera leads off as Hernandez sits

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Tonight's lineup: Herrera leads off as Hernandez sits

With eight games left in the Phillies' season, Pete Mackanin is still playing to win.

After dropping the series opener in Atlanta, 7-2, Friday, Mackanin made several changes to his lineup for Game 2 tonight. His first change is at the top of the order, as Cesar Hernandez sits and Odubel Herrera moves up to the leadoff spot.

The decision to rest Hernandez appears based on his poor career numbers against Atlanta's starter, Julio Teheran. Hernandez is 3-28 against Teheran, while Herrera is 5-23. Teheran is 1-2 this season against the Phillies. He won his previous start against them on Aug. 30, allowing just one run and striking out eight in 6 2/3 innings pitched. 

Herrera has no hits and six strikeouts in his last 12 at-bats. He's also been chasing a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone and has only one walk since Sept. 9. At .281, his batting average is the lowest it has been since Aug. 6.  

J.P. Crawford, who has looked smooth at third base, shifts to second base to accommodate the change. Maikel Franco slots back in at third.

Mackanin's final change is swapping catcher Jorge Alfaro for Cameron Rupp. With the Phillies getting an extended look at Alfaro, Rupp's playing time has recently decreased. This is his first start since Sept. 17 against Oakland.

In his second start for the Phillies, Henderson Alvarez won't have to do much to better Ben Lively's outing Friday night. Lively conceded six hits and five runs before recording an out. Alvarez's start Sunday, when he allowed four runs in five innings, was his first major league game in the past 28 months. An All-Star in 2014, Alvarez's career was derailed by injuries. 

Below is Saturday's lineup:

1. Odubel Herrera, CF
2. Freddy Galvis, SS
3. Nick Williams, RF
4. Rhys Hoskins, 1B
5. Aaron Altherr, LF
6. Maikel Franco, 3B
7. J.P. Crawford, 2B
8. Cameron Rupp, C
9. Henderson Alvarez, P

And the Braves' lineup:

1. Ender Inciarte, CF
2. Ozzie Albies, 2B
3. Nick Markakis, RF
4. Tyler Flowers, C
5. Matt Adams, 1B
6. Dansby Swanson, SS
7. Rio Ruiz, 3B
8. Jace Peterson, LF
9. Julio Teheran, P

Best of MLB: Cubs take control in NL Central with win over Brewers

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Best of MLB: Cubs take control in NL Central with win over Brewers

MILWAUKEE -- Pinch-hitter Tommy La Stella drew a bases-loaded walk off All-Star closer Corey Knebel with one out in the 10th inning, helping the Chicago Cubs beat the Milwaukee Brewers 5-4 on Friday night to tighten their grip on the NL Central.

The Cubs hold a five-game lead with nine days left in the regular season after winning their second straight tense game over the Brewers. Milwaukee dropped into third in the division, 5 1/2 games behind Chicago, after St. Louis beat Pittsburgh earlier Friday.

The Brewers had the tying run at first with one out in the bottom of the 10th, but Eric Sogard was called out at second trying to advance on a ball in the dirt. Shortstop Addison Russell appeared to hold the tag as Sogard's foot lifted off second for a split-second, and the call was confirmed on review (see full recap).

Ryan Goins' hidden-ball trick, grand slam lead Blue Jays over Yankees
TORONTO -- Ryan Goins successfully pulled off a hidden ball trick and hit his second career grand slam, leading the Toronto Blue Jays over Masahiro Tanaka and the Yankees 8-1 Friday night and ensuring New York had to wait at least one more day to clinch a playoff berth.

With Todd Frazier on base following a leadoff double in the third, Jose Bautista made a running catch just in front of the right field warning track on Jacoby Ellsbury's one-out drive. Goins caught Bautista's throw while standing near second base, then pretended to toss the ball to pitcher Marco Estrada while slipping in into his glove.

Goins turned his back to Frazier, who had returned to the base, and when Frazier briefly lifted his left foot off the base, Goins tagged him on the left thigh. Frazier insisted he had maintained contact with the base, but umpire Mark Carlson called him out to end the inning (see full recap).

Red Sox rally for win over Reds, extend AL East lead
CINCINNATI -- Rafael Devers hit a three-run homer Friday night, and the Boston Red Sox extended their AL East lead to four games by overcoming Scooter Gennett's fourth grand slam of the season for a 5-4 victory over the Cincinnati Reds.

Boston added to its lead with the help of the Yankees' 8-1 loss at Toronto. The Red Sox have won 12 of 15, keeping the Yankees at bay while moving a season-high 25 games over .500 (89-64).

Their AL Cy Young Award winner is still struggling heading into playoff time.

Rick Porcello gave up Gennett's fourth grand slam -- a Reds' season record -- in the first inning. He lasted a season-low four innings, turning a 5-4 lead over to the bullpen. Porcello has lost 17 games -- most in the majors -- after winning 22 last year along with the Cy Young (see full recap).

Cardinals rally past Pirates in 9th
PITTSBURGH -- Randal Grichuk scored after an error by Pirates shortstop Jordy Mercer, capping a frantic ninth-rally that lifted the surging St. Louis Cardinals over Pittsburgh 4-3 on Friday night.

The playoff-chasing Cardinals won their fifth straight, despite trailing by a run entering the ninth.

Stephen Piscotty led off with a double to right against closer Felipe Rivero (5-3), and Jedd Gyorko followed with a pinch-hit RBI single. After Tommy Pham's single, Grichuk pinch-ran for Gyorko at third. He scored when Mercer misplayed Dexter Fowler's sharp groundball.

Former Pirates reliever Juan Nicasio (4-5) got the win after working the eighth and ninth. Fowler and Piscotty had two hits each.

David Freese had an RBI double for the Pirates, who have dropped eight of nine. Rivero blew a save for only the second time in 20 chances this season (see full recap).

Twins stay on track in postseason race with win over Tigers
DETROIT -- Max Kepler and Brian Dozier homered, Byron Buxton had three hits and the playoff-chasing Minnesota Twins beat the Detroit Tigers 7-3 on Friday night.

Buxton's two-run double in the fourth put the Twins ahead to stay against a Detroit team that announced before the game that manager Brad Ausmus will not be back in 2018.

Minnesota came into the night leading the race for the American League's second wild card by 2 games over Texas and the Los Angeles Angels.

Kyle Gibson (12-10) allowed three runs and five hits in seven innings for the Twins. He struck out six and walked two.

Daniel Norris (4-8) allowed five runs and seven hits in 4 2/3 innings.

Nicholas Castellanos and Ian Kinsler homered for Detroit, but the Tigers dropped to 4-18 in September (see full recap).