HOUSTON – The two-out, full-count single went to left field, and at the opposite end of the expanse of grass, Houston Astros right fielder Josh Reddick was about to turn away in disgust as the runner on second base rounded third. The New York Yankees were about to score their first run, in the fifth inning of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, and slice the Astros’ lead in half.
And then Marwin Gonzalez came up firing.
“On a 3-2 count, two outs, with guys running [on the pitch], I probably don’t even make that throw, just for the chance of overthrowing,” Reddick said of Gonzalez’s play in left. “He made the perfect throw.”
In an instant, the game had been altered. Gonzalez’s throw home nailed Greg Bird, the leaden-footed Yankees first baseman, at the plate. A crowd of 43,116 at Minute Maid Park, witnessing the first ALCS game in Houston in 12 years, went bonkers. The Astros’ two-run lead was preserved – and they would need every bit of it in what became a 2-1 victory in Game 1.
“Too slow,” Bird said when asked whether he had any regrets over the play. “Wish I was a little faster. What are you gonna do?”
If the play itself was amazing – with two outs, a full count and another Yankee base runner on first, Bird had the luxury of running on the pitch, and a single to the outfield almost uniformly produces a run in that situation – equally amazing was the player who made the defensive gem of the evening.
Gonzalez, a 28-year-old Venezuelan, broke into professional ball as a 17-year-old in 2007 as a third baseman and played mostly shortstop in the higher levels of the minors.
All these years later, he is a marvel of defensive versatility, a player who made at least 14 starts this season at five different positions – all four infield spots, plus left field. A switch hitter, he is also a mainstay of the middle of the Astros’ lineup, which was merely the most prolific lineup in baseball this season. He is, in the words of teammate George Springer, “The unsung hero of our team.”
“He doesn’t get enough credit,” Springer said. “Defensively, offensively — I don’t know many guys that you can stick in all eight or even nine positions – I’m sure he can pitch if we asked him. But he’s been huge for us all year. And he doesn’t get enough credit for it. He doesn’t get the credit for how athletic he is. It’s really hard to do what he does, and he does it well.”
Gonzalez is an example of the breed of player known as the super-utility man, a position that has become more popular across the game as bullpens gain supremacy. With teams using relievers more frequently, they are carrying more of them on their rosters, and as a result it is increasingly important that extra position players are versatile defensively.
“He’s the man of many gloves,” Reddick said. “He comes out [for warmups] with the first baseman’s mitt, the infield glove and outfield glove. And he’s above average at all the positions he plays. It’s rare to see a guy like that, and rare to see a guy succeed as well as he does all over the place.”
Gonzalez made his first start in the outfield in 2014, a single start in left field. The following year, he started there 12 times, and by last season he was being moved all over the field. This season, he made 38 starts in left, 33 at shortstop, 20 at first base, 15 at third base and 14 at second base. And what’s most remarkable is the fact he plays them all at a high to elite level.
“We talk about the fact he can play a lot of positions,” Astros Manager A.J. Hinch said. “Where that sells him short is that he plays them all well. We need to talk about how good he is at every position. … It’s like having a shortstop in left field.”
Astros lefty Dallas Keuchel – whose pristine pitching line of seven innings, zero runs allowed and 10 strikeouts was kept that way thanks to Gonzalez’s throw – called the latter “literally the most undervalued player in the big leagues.” But that surely was not the case Friday night, when Gonzalez’s value in the Astros’ win was almost immeasurable. And it will likely be untrue in the future, as Gonzalez can cash in via free agency after 2018.
For that matter, as baseball shifts further into a bullpen-driven sport, players like Gonzalez – should a team be lucky enough to find one – could be among the most valuable assets in the game.