One of the great things about living in the San Francisco Bay Area, and there are a bunch of them, is being a stone’s throw away from both a National League and an American League team. One is right across the Bay from the other, and fans get to see all the teams from both leagues up close over the course of the season.
This past weekend, the Oakland A’s hosted the Detroit Tigers and fans got to see the likes of Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera and Mark Verlander take the field. Take a short trip across the Bay and a day later the San Francisco Giants were hosting the Colorado Rockies who bring Todd Helton (okay, his skills are fading, but he’s still dangerous at the plate), Troy Tulowitzki, and Carlos Gonzalez to town. Forgetting for the moment that A’s fans got to watch the MVP-caliber play of Gonzalez on a near-daily basis until he was inexplicably traded to the Rockies, it is a particular pleasure to see this young man play the game.
Calling Gonzalez one of the premier players in the game is not a flash of brilliant analysis. His skills are roundly admired and he has the stats to back up his well-deserved reputation. His Silver Slugger and Golden Glove awards from 2010 tell you most of what you need to know. But even Bill James admits there are qualities some players have that transcend statistics, qualities that make them stand out in a way that is difficult if not impossible to quantify. The best in the game have those qualities, whatever they are.
One moment from Tuesday’s game between the Rockies and the Giants tells me that Gonzalez is one of those guys.
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By the time Gonzalez came up in the 7th inning, Tim Lincecum, the Giants’ starter, had thrown nearly 115 pitches. Most other pitchers in the league would have been long gone. Lincecum has been less than consistent so far this season, and the fact that the Giants had managed only one run by late in the game wasn’t helping matters. But you have to hand it to him; he was hanging in there. He managed to get two outs before Gonzalez came up in the 7th. The Rockies had a 3-1 lead, and their centerfielder, Tyler Colvin, was on 3rd after Buster Posey’s uncharacteristic throwing error. Lincecum threw Gonzalez a two-seamer and jumped out to an 0-1 lead on a called strike. Posey then called for a fastball in and at the knees. The ball was low, but it drifted over the plate a bit and Gonzalez, an excellent low-ball hitter, swung. Gonzalez has a classic lefty swing, but he didn’t try to put it in the seats, even though he’s clearly capable of doing just that. He didn’t try to pull the ball, only to roll over on it and ground out to second, ending any chance to score the runner. Instead, he took a nice, compact cut, an “inside out” swing, and lofted the ball over the left side of the infield for a single. Colvin scored, and Gonzalez stood safely on 1st . As it turned out, one run was the margin of victory for the Rockies.
Gonzalez’s hit was a thing of beauty. It was the game at its selfless best. It was the smart play by a smart, skillful guy. I hope MLB’s other hitters were paying attention. How many times have we seen a batter swing for the fences when a single to left would have put his team in a position to win the game? The chances of a single, even for the best hitters, are far greater than the chances for a home run, but how many batters (besides Derek Jeter) will shorten up and make the smart play even with two strikes on them, let alone when the count’s 0-1? The hit looked like something Rod Carew would have pulled off, or Tony Gwynn, or Pete Rose. Gonzalez didn’t drive the ball to the warning track only to have it disappear in Angel Pagan’s glove (i.e., make the last out); he didn’t hit a sharp grounder to second while trying to pull the ball (i.e., make the last out); and he didn’t swing for the fences on the next two pitches only to miss everything (i.e., make the last out). He had a plan and the skills to execute the plan.
Carlos Gonzalez doesn’t necessarily get paid to hit singles, but he does get paid to drive in runs. More importantly, he gets paid to help his team win. And while knowing everything about his stats as he stepped to the plate in the 7th inning had to make you like the Rockies’ chances, seeing him in action at that moment – a moment and performance that transcend being quantified – sealed the deal.