Eight months ago, Miguel Gonzalez needed a job. He was at home in California, waiting to hear from his agent, thinking he might sign with Cancún of the Mexican League. He was 27 years old and had pitched one game above Class AA — the very definition of a baseball longshot.
Tuesday, he won a game that allowed the Baltimore Orioles to dream about an American League East title on the final night of the season.
“I’m speechless,” he said afterward.
We know the feeling.
It’s difficult to say who has the more arduous task in baseball right now, weary traveling secretaries or sportswriters tasked with finding new descriptors for the Orioles’ supernatural season. James Shields victimized the Baltimore lineup Tuesday, with a 15-strikeout performance that set a Tampa Bay franchise record. The Orioles scored one run, on a Bunyanesque homer by Chris Davis, and managed a grand total of two baserunners.
Final score: Baltimore 1, Tampa Bay 0. The Orioles, now an absurd 29-9 in one-run games, will host a one-game playoff for the division title if they win and the Yankees lose in Game 162.
“We’re not supposed to be here,” closer Jim Johnson said, after recording his 51st save. “Why not have fun, see what happens, and let it all hang out?”
During the franchise’s heyday, the Oriole Way came to represent fundamental excellence and regular American League pennants. In 2012, the Oriole Way means winning with a roster for which headings such as PITCHERS and OUTFIELDERS have been replaced by UNRECOGNIZABLE NAMES and VAGABOND STORIES.
Gonzalez is the avatar of all that is right about the Orioles — and a 2012 season in which the Oakland A’s and Washington Nationals will join Baltimore in a new-look October.
He didn’t pitch at all during the 2008 and 2009 seasons because of knee and elbow injuries. Then he spent two unremarkable years in the Boston farm system. Gonzalez signed with the Orioles in late February — when spring training was well under way — on the recommendation of a scout, Fred Ferreira, who didn’t even start working for the Orioles until after he spotted Gonzalez in the Mexican Winter League.
How obscure was Gonzalez when the season began? He didn’t even appear in a major-league spring training game.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Johnson said.
“I’d never seen a scouting report, never heard of him,” admitted Bill Castro, the Orioles’ bullpen coach.
Gonzalez began the season with a role befitting his anonymity — reliever for the Class AAA Norfolk Tides. But he made a subtle adjustment — moving from the third-base side to first-base side of the rubber — and pitched his way into the Norfolk rotation. He earned a call-up and debuted in the majors May 29. Four months later, in the Orioles’ most crucial game of the season, he coolly delivered 6-1/3 scoreless innings. Fastballs. Sliders. Curveballs. Splitters.
Above all, strikes.
“The Mexican Greg Maddux,” praised reliever Luis Ayala, his countryman and Orioles teammate. “We played together in the Caribbean Series (this year) on the Mexican team. I told Castro his name. I said, ‘Hey, look at his stats.’ He’s the same pitcher now. He just got the opportunity to show what he can do.”
Although Johnson barely saw Gonzalez during spring training, he learned the right-hander’s peripatetic tale. It sounded familiar. “Like a lot of guys we had in camp — guys coming out of nowhere,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of that is part of their makeup. That’s why they’re able to win the close games.”
There is something to that. Many Orioles are not far removed from the pressure of earning their first big-league paychecks. Davis bounced between the majors and minors in Texas, struggling to establish himself in a stacked lineup, before a trade to Baltimore last season rebooted his career. With Tuesday’s moonshot, he became only the second Oriole to homer in six straight games. The other? Reggie Jackson in 1976.
Ryan Flaherty, the sudden starter at second base, hit .237 last year for the Class AAA Iowa Cubs. He joined the Orioles as a Rule 5 draft pick and said he’s less nervous now than at the beginning of the season. “Since then, I’ve felt fine,” he was saying Tuesday afternoon. “Once everything goes away, it’s still the same game I played in high school.”
Gonzalez was preparing for winter ball at this time last year. Tuesday, he went up against what Baltimore manager Buck Showalter said was the best pitching performance his team faced all season. And yet the native of Gudalajara triumphed in the end. Showalter summoned lefty Brian Matusz with one out in the seventh, and the troupe of Orioles fans burst into a heartfelt ovation. Gonzalez graciously doffed his cap as he neared the dugout. (Who, may I ask, could have predicted that scene in Game 161 when the season began?)
“I’m calm when I’m out there pitching,” Gonzalez said. “I’m actually nervous when I’m watching the game.”
Gonzalez and his teammates turned into anxious spectators after Tuesday’s win, watching the Yankees-Red Sox game on the clubhouse televisions. There was particular poignancy in the room, as Robert Andino — who authored the walk-off hit that eliminated Boston last year — was rooting for the Red Sox to ruin another team’s season.
And yes, more than one unprintable filled the room after Raul Ibañez started the Yankees’ comeback victory with his game-tying home run in the ninth.
“We aren’t trying to spoil it this time,” Andino said, with his gaze fixed on the TV sets. “We’re trying to get it for ourselves.”
On the final day of the season, they have a chance. The new Oriole Way — Gonzalez, Davis, and all the others — looks like pure baseball brilliance.