06/17/08 9:20 PM ET
Gonzalez is ready for return to Braves
Left-handed reliever could be closing for Atlanta
By Mark Bowman / MLB.com
"He's fired up," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "He's really got the adrenaline going."
A little more than a year since he underwent Tommy John elbow ligament replacement surgery, Gonzalez finds himself ready to prove he can once again become of the game's top relievers. He joined his Braves teammates on Tuesday and will be activated before Wednesday night's game against the Rangers at Rangers Ballpark at Arlington.
"It's the best feeling," Gonzalez said. "I'm so anxious."
When the Braves acquired Gonzalez from the Pirates in January of 2007, he was coming off a season in which he had converted each of his 24 save opportunities. During his 18 appearances with Atlanta last year, he posted a 1.59 ERA and converted his only two save opportunities.
While Cox hasn't committed to using Gonzalez as his closer, he has said he would feel comfortable with him in that role. In addition, the veteran skipper said projected closer Rafael Soriano may be ready to be activated from the disabled list when he becomes eligible on Saturday.
"I'm more than ready for the opportunity," Gonzalez said. "It's been 12 months since I've been on that mound. I've been salivating for that. I haven't been able to sleep for the last week."
Even with a number of injuries affecting their pitching staff, the Braves remained patient and allowed Gonzalez to make sure he was ready before activating him. He spent the first six weeks of the season in extended Spring Training and then passed a test with four scoreless appearances for Double-A Mississippi.
Instead of declaring himself ready at that point, Gonzalez heeded the advice of John Smoltz, who had told the left-handed reliever that he'd truly know when it was best to return from Tommy John surgery. Thus he joined Triple-A Richmond, with whom he allowed one run in five innings -- six appearances.
While with Richmond, Gonzalez saw great improvement with his slider and credited some of his success to advice given by veteran catcher Sal Fasano and pitching coach Guy Hansen. His slider, which he considers his top strikeout pitch, gained more bite over the course of the past week.
"I think that was the best decision I made to go back down to Richmond," Gonzalez said. "Every time out, my slider was getting better, my velocity was better, and my confidence was getting better. That was probably the best decision I made, instead of trying to rush right after Mississippi."
Gonzalez proved he could throw back-to-back days without problems when he produced scoreless appearances on Saturday and Sunday. He said the reason he wasn't activated Tuesday was because the Braves wanted him to be fully rested after passing this last test.
"The last games I threw out there on Saturday and Sunday I felt like I could come out here and do what I do," Gonzalez said. "I hadn't had that confidence before. I felt like I could come out and compete and make do with what I had. But now I actually feel like I can come out here and be Gonzo."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.