A familiar face, from a happy time in the Nationals‘ history, returned to the clubhouse on Friday morning. One by one, teammates stopped by left-handed reliever Michael Gonzalez‘s locker to give a hug and say hello. Gio Gonzalez sat with him and talked. Rafael Soriano, a friend from their time together in Atlanta, and Ross Detwiler laughed with Gonzalez.
“It’s a great feeling, just like I was expecting,” Gonzalez said. “It feels like I never left. It’s always a good feeling, man.”
Gonzalez, a left-handed specialist, was a key part of the Nationals’ bullpen during the second half of the 2012 season, their National League East-winning year. The veteran posted a 3.03 ERA over 35 2/3 innings that season and was well respected by teammates. Detwiler credited Gonzalez in 2012 for his advice on an aggressive pitching approach. Gonzalez was even known to take care of the young players, taking minor leaguers to Disney World while he was rehabbing a knee injury before his June 2012 call-up and buying rookies new suits.
Gonzalez, 35, returns to the Nationals on a minor league deal to compete for a spot in the bullpen. At the very least, he provides added left-handed depth.
He is coming off a down season. He signed a $2.25 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers last winter and posted a 4.68 ERA in 50 innings spread over 75 appearances. Left-handed batters hit .274 off him.
“It was kind of those things where it was a bad year,” he said. “You have those. I don’t put too much thought into it. This is a brand new year. I know what I’m capable of doing. And again, don’t put much thought into what I’ve done before me or behind me. Everything else is from here on. And again, with this energy and these guys, I’m looking forward to a great season.”
Gonzalez said he chose the Nationals over interest from four others teams, all who host spring training in Arizona, where he spends part of his offseason. He felt more comfortable with the Nationals and saw the possibility of winning again.
“First-class treatment from the top all the way down,” Gonzalez said. “Everything is first class. And the opportunity to win. I definitely see the upside. I definitely see this team as World Series contenders and the point of my career that I want a ring and I feel this is the best opportunity to get it.”
The last time Gonzalez was with the Nationals he had a minor league deal and later earned a spot in the bullpen. He said he hopes he can do the same again. If he makes the major league roster, he will make $1.5 million with the possibility of $750,000 in incentives.
Gonzalez said he has thrown a few bullpen sessions in Arizona and is scheduled to throw his first one in Nationals camp on Saturday. Manager Matt Williams said the Nationals would evaluate after that how many more bullpen sessions he would need before he could face hitters and then pitch in a game.
“Man, I’ve been staying fit,” Gonzalez said. “Arm is great. Everything feels great. I’ll be throwing a bullpen tomorrow. Talked to (pitching coach Steve) McCatty a little bit. … Let’s go to work, man. It doesn’t take me long to get ready. I pretty much know my body and aware what I need to do and need to get. I’m right there with them.”
Gonzalez will compete with left-hander Xavier Cedeno and others to earn a spot in the bullpen. Cedeno has thrown three scoreless innings this spring. The Nationals traded for Jerry Blevins in the offseason and he appears to be the team’s full-inning left-handed reliever. General Manager Mike Rizzo said he has liked how both relievers have looked in spring so far. Gonzalez just adds to the depth.
Gonzalez has a track record of getting left-handed batters out. In 2012, he limited them to a .179 average. Over his career, Gonzalez has held left-handers to a .219 average. Gonzalez’s fastball also lost a tick of velocity last season, averaging 90.9 miles per hour in Milwaukee but was 91.5 mph in 2012 with the Nationals. He has a career 3.14 ERA over 11 major league seasons.
“You hope he goes back to his norm and get to his career numbers,” Rizzo said. “He’s always been effective against lefties and righties. He’s a work horse and pitched in 75 games last year. Hopefully he can add some quality depth and help the club from the left side.”
● Ross Ohlendorf is still dealing with back tightness and will continue to rest, Williams said. There is no structural damage and it is just a cramp, Williams said. The right-hander made his spring debut on Thursday night, faced four batters, retired none and left for the clubhouse with a trainer at his side. Ohlendorf dealt with side discomfort and a finger laceration earlier in camp.
● Erik Davis, who has been shut down for three weeks with a right elbow strain, said he is resting for another two weeks after a doctor’s evaluation. After that, he will be check again to determine if he can resume a throwing program. Should rest not work, surgery could be an option.
● Ryan Mattheus, who has been dealing with chest inflammation, has been playing catch and said he feels better. Depending on his improvement, he is still about a week away from facing hitters.