HOUSTON — Marwin Gonzalez stood between home plate and the on-deck circle and, as the home crowd rose around him, anticipating the biggest at-bat of the game, took a string of left-handed warm-up swings against thin air.
There were runners on first and second, with just one out in the sixth inning on Saturday, and Gonzalez already had two left-handed singles in Game 2 of the American League Division Series. The Houston Astros trailed the Cleveland Indians by a run. Their bats had been otherwise silent all afternoon. Gonzalez was nearing the batter’s box when Indians Manager Terry Francona walked out of the dugout, signaled for left-handed reliever Andrew Miller out of the bullpen, and forced Gonzalez to shift his physical and mental approach.
Gonzalez is a switch-hitter. So as Miller warmed, and Minute Maid Park stirred some more, he shuffled his feet and started taking right-handed warm-up cuts instead. Those few steps, changing his stance from one side of the plate to the other, were significant, even if they cover just a foot or two. They have been on Gonzalez’s mind all year long.
“I put a lot of work into it the season,” Gonzalez said of refining his right-handed swing. “It was a tough season for me on the offensive side, but this is baseball. Everybody knows how hard it is, how hard it is to be consistent. I’ve been putting in a lot of work. It felt good today.”
On Saturday, the result of that work was a two-run double off Miller and a 3-1 win for the Astros. They can now complete a sweep of the Indians at Progressive Field in Cleveland on Monday, and Gonzalez’s versatility is just another reason to believe that this is only the beginning of another long postseason run for the Astros. He was a key piece of their title-winning team last fall, finishing the regular season with a .303 average, 23 home runs and 90 RBI, hitting an unforgettable game-tying homer in Game 2 of the World Series, and giving Manager A.J. Hinch a reliable middle-of-the-order bat and a glove that can play all over the field.
But 2017 still brought his worst season as a right-handed hitter, so Gonzalez spent this year focusing on his swing and approach from that side of the plate. A down offensive year in 2018, by his own high standards, included clear improvements as a righty. And that is already showing up in October.
“It’s a little bit more well-rounded now. He’s got the ability to move the ball around the field,” Hinch said, after Saturday’s win, of Gonzalez’s right-handed swing. “He’s gotten to be a smarter right-handed hitter, where he’s not just trying to ambush all fastballs. He’s into the counts. I think his bat path is cleaner. I think his pitch selection has gotten better, and his production has come with it.”
When Hinch first got to the Astros in 2015, he noticed Gonzalez trying to pull too many pitches from the right side of the plate. That is a hard tendency to avoid when playing at Minute Maid Park. The left-field foul pole is only 315 feet from home plate, a very short porch for any righty with a bit of pop, but also a trap of sorts. It started to hurt Gonzalez last season, as he hit .250 and had a .328 on-base percentage in 134 plate appearances from that side of the plate. From the left side, he hit .322 with 18 home runs and 74 RBI in 381 plate appearances, salvaging his numbers and putting him 19th in American League MVP voting.
In the previous two seasons, his production was much more even as a left- and right-handed hitter. To get back to that, or at least get closer, he tweaked his approached from the right side, became less-reliant on pulling the ball and looked to use more of the field depending on the pitch. He actually had a better average in fewer plate appearances as a right-handed hitter this season, .273 to .237, and had comparable power numbers from both sides of the plate. That led him into the sixth inning on Saturday, in the at-bat against Miller, when he went with a fastball on the high-and-outside corner and drove it into right field.
“It’s weird because all these days, I’ve been practicing from my left side because I know that all the [Indians] starters are righties,” Gonzalez said of shifting sides of the plate midgame. " I’ve just been swinging from the right side just a little bit, especially because [Carlos] Correa is behind me and [Yuli Gurriel] in front of me. So I didn’t think that they were going to bring a lefty to face me. I was lucky that I got the pitch and got the runs to win the game."
His improvements from the right side are magnified right now, as the Astros face a talented Indians bullpen and are still waiting for Correa to regain a rhythm at the plate. With Gonzalez hitting between the left-handed Gurriel and right-handed Correa, it makes it hard for opposing managers to effectively match up with the Astros in late innings. With Correa struggling, hitting .169 in August and .194 in September, it helps to have Gonzalez to pick up some production in the heart of the lineup.
Correa has 21 RBI in his postseason career, tied for the second most in franchise history, but has not been the same since back pains slowed him earlier in the season, forcing Hinch to slide the shortstop down the lineup.
“[Correa] is a pretty good player. You lose track of that if you get too caught up in whatever numbers you look at,” Hinch said before Game 2 on Saturday. “And I like the presence that he has, and I think he’s going to come up in a big spot and get a big hit for us at some point in this series.”
That has yet to happen. There is no telling if it will. So the rest of the core has had to up its play, if only marginally, and Gonzalez has responded from both sides of the plate.