By Mandy Bell
CLEVELAND — Flash back to the end of March near the end of Spring Training, when the Guardians were having the difficult conversation with Oscar Gonzalez about optioning him to Triple-A Columbus.
No one knew what his future held. It was clear that his 2021 Minor League numbers were enough to be intrigued about his future, but his lack of patience at the plate may have been too much to overcome at the big league level. The Guardians needed to see that Gonzalez could continue to improve with more Minor League reps and force his way into the Majors at a time that would help him be more successful.
“He’s never going to be a high-walk guy. That’s OK,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said in March. “If he swings at enough good pitches, he might really get dangerous.”
Fast forward to mid-September and Gonzalez spent his Tuesday night mimicking a basketball jump shot as rounded second base after his go-ahead two-run blast that led to a 3-1 victory over the Angels at Progressive field. When he made the turn around third base, his teammates could hardly be contained by the dugout fence. They erupted as he made his way back to the bench.
“The way I would describe [the team’s reaction] is like when a kid gets candy,” Gonzalez said through team interpreter Agustin Rivero. “Everyone is excited and there’s a lot of emotion going on.”
With 22 regular-season games left, the Guardians have a three-game lead over the White Sox atop the American League Central.
Gonzalez has been steady for the Guardians since he made his debut on May 26. He’s hit small rough patches here and there, but like a lot of other young guys on this roster, he’s been able to make quick adjustments to find ways to thrive again. He’s logged plenty of doubles (24 in 69 games) and has kept his average around .300 all season. Now he’s starting to flex his muscles.
Everyone knows Gonzalez has much more power in the tank. In 2021, he smacked 31 homers in 121 games between Double-A Akron and Columbus. This season, even though he’s still chasing 46.3% of pitches out of the zone (league average is 28.4%), Gonzalez is capitalizing on the pitches he hits in the zone.
“We just want to see how many good pitches he can swing at,” Francona said. “And to his credit — he’ll go out of the zone — but more often than not, especially when he gets down in the count, he’ll shorten up and get something he can handle. And he has such good hands that he can still hit with some force, even when he’s shortening up.”
That’s exactly what he did in the sixth inning off Angels lefty José Suarez. Gonzalez had an 0-2 count and got a perfectly placed slider on the lower inside corner just out of the zone and sent it out of the park to give the Guardians the lead. Four of Gonzalez’s eight home runs have been hit in a two-strike count.
“The conclusion is I never stop working,” Gonzalez said. “The results will come in, and I will get the results as a hitter that I know I can.”
The Guardians need Gonzalez’s bat to be successful. That part is obvious. But it’s even more important for him to keep going if he’s going to see more time in the cleanup spot. José Ramírez, who hits third, is getting intentionally walked more now than he did at the beginning of the year. He ranks second in intentional walks (eight) since the All-Star break, trailing only the Yankees’ Aaron Judge. And if teams are going to pitch around Ramírez, the Guardians want to have an equally threatening option in Gonzalez behind him.
“I see it as a challenge,” Gonzalez said. “But the next time there’s an opportunity, they’ll realize it’s a mistake for them.”
Gonzalez and Steven Kwan have been the core of the Guardians’ impressive rookie class. The gritty, come-from-behind approach that the club has worn with pride since the beginning of the year has paralleled how those two have played, considering 24 of Gonzalez’s 34 RBIs have come in the sixth inning or later. And if the Guardians are going to get to the postseason, Gonzalez will be a big reason why.
“It’s unbelievable,” Guardians infielder Owen Miller said. “I played with him last year a little bit in Columbus and I got to see what he could do last year. … He’s definitely a special hitter and I think he can do this for a long time.”