Gonzalez regaining dominating form
Closer sheds post-surgery reluctance when striking out side
ATLANTA -- Since allowing a two-run eighth-inning homer to Pirates outfielder Nate McLouth on April 17, Mike Gonzalez has been a man on a mission.
But until facing Albert Pujols during Tuesday night's win over the Cardinals, Gonzalez had never truly reached a comfort level that allowed him to unleash a pitch with the ferocity he possessed before his elbow began to bother him late in the 2006 season.
"It's one of those things where sometimes you need a hitter like that to come up and put you over the top," said Gonzalez, who claimed Pujols as one of his three strikeout victims during a perfect ninth that preserved a 2-1 Braves win.
While Jo-Jo Reyes provided encouragement with the strongest start of his young career, the Braves returned to Turner Field on Wednesday, primarily still buzzing about the dominance Gonzalez showed during his 15-pitch ninth inning.
"He was outstanding," said Braves manager Bobby Cox after watching Gonzalez throw his fastball at 95 mph and increase the velocity of his slider.
When the Braves acquired Gonzalez in January 2007, he was dealing with left elbow discomfort that would force him to undergo Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery less than two full months into his Atlanta career. After returning from a 13-month absence last year, the left-handed closer battled to regain the desired arm strength that has only recently materialized.
"Even though you're saying, 'I'm great, I'm great, I'm great,' something has to take you to that level where everything comes out, and last night was one of those times," Gonzalez said. "I felt I threw the slider harder than usual. When I was dominating, that's how I was throwing it. It wasn't 78-80 [mph], it was 83-86. The fastball wasn't 88-91, it was 93-96."
Gonzalez, who leads the Majors with 17.28 strikeouts per nine innings, allowed four runs during the first five innings he completed this season. His turnaround started after McLouth powered an inside fastball into the right-field seats at PNC Park.
After that game, Gonzalez remained motionless as he sat at his locker and simply stared forward. The 30-year-old reliever was upset because he felt that he wasn't pitching with the same kind of determination that he would have if it had been a save opportunity.
"You throw him nine out of 10 pitches and he's not going to hit that," Gonzalez said. "But it was the conviction that you put in the pitch. I didn't put all of my conviction behind that pitch. I was kind of going through the motions because I wasn't in a save situation. As soon as that happened, I came in and said, 'I need to turn this around, because there are going to be some opportunities where I do need to go out there and get my work.'"
Since surrendering the homer, Gonzalez has struck out nine of the 13 batters that he's faced.
"Everything clicked [Tuesday] night," Gonzalez said. "Last night, I felt I had really good stuff and the location was where I needed it to be. When you got those things going for you, you don't put much thought into it. You just let your talent take over. That's when I'm at my best."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.