SARASOTA, Fla. — Baltimore Orioles pitcher Miguel Gonzalez has learned to never make assumptions when it comes to baseball.
Take, for example, Sunday afternoon, when the 28-year-old Gonzalez was making his first Grapefruit League start of the season at Ed Smith Stadium in the Orioles’ 12-3 win over the Philadelphia Phillies. He made quick work of a Phillies split-squad team, pitching two scoreless innings without allowing a hit.
With Gonzalez facing his final hitter of the day, Phillies third baseman Michael Young lifted a routine flyball to right field for the third out of the fifth inning. Instead of idly watching the out or starting a casual stroll back to the dugout, Gonzalez scrambled off the mound to cover second base — just in case.
“Those are things I notice that lets you know this guy is not assuming anything, not when you’ve been where he has,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said. “Miguel is trying to make the club.”
Gonzalez was signed last spring training to a minor league contract, after he was found by executive director of international recruiting Fred Ferreira pitching winter ball in Mexico. He ended the season as maybe the Orioles’ most consistent pitcher. He won four of his last five decisions in the heat of a pennant race. Eight of his last 10 starts were quality starts, not including an additional one against the New York Yankees in Game 3 of the American League Division Series.
But Gonzalez isn’t assuming he has a rotation spot set for 2013, let alone a roster spot. Gonzalez toiled in the minors for eight years — two of those taken away by Tommy John surgery and a chronic knee injury, so he realizes that success can be fleeting.
“The fact that I’ve played everywhere helps me,” Gonzalez said. “I played in Mexico and that helped me out mentally and physically playing year round and facing guys down there. I was able to come here and be a better pitcher and know how to pitch to hitters. And having the struggles I did and forgetting about what happened in the past and just worrying about what’s going to happen now in the present, that helps me too.”
Despite everywhere Gonzalez has been, Sunday marked his first spring training start as a major leaguer. While in minor league camp with the Los Angeles Angels in 2007, he served as a fill-in for a couple of spring games, then went back to the back fields.
Most pitchers have their first big league camp before dominating hitters on the road at Yankee Stadium, but Gonzalez’s path has never been conventional.
Gonzalez spent the summer at home in Southern California training with Orioles Vice President of Baseball Operations Brady Anderson. And Gonzalez said the workouts at Anderson’s home in Glendale, Calif. — left-hander Zach Britton was also a participant — will keep him strong throughout the season.
Last season, Gonzalez pitched a total of 220 innings between winter ball, Class AAA Norfolk and the majors. Still, the Orioles were careful with Gonzalez down the stretch, giving him an extra day of rest whenever possible.
The Orioles will remain careful with Gonzalez. He’s the favorite to be the team’s No. 3 starter when camp breaks. He decided to skip winter ball in Mexico. He was invited to pitch for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, but he declined.
The workouts have paid off, Gonzalez said. His legs feel stronger. He dropped two percentage points of body fat and added eight pounds of muscle.
“I feel stronger this year and my goal is just to stay healthy,” he said. “I don’t want to change anything from what I did last year. I just wanted to get stronger.”
It’s more than likely he begins that goal in the big leagues. But he makes no assumptions.
“I think it has a more to do with what he’s been through to get here,” Showalter said. “He’s letting it rip and he’s not taking one pitch for granted.”