That four-game stretch in August, when Marco Gonzales had a 10.35 ERA and batters were hitting .396 against him – that was the worst of it for the left-hander this year. And all of that transpired while he was pitching through neck pain before he was placed on the disabled list.
But consider this was Gonzales’ first full season pitching for the Mariners, he is just two years removed from Tommy John surgery with the St. Louis Cardinals and this season he completed a career-high 29 starts and 166 2/3 innings pitched.
Remove that stretch when he simply began running on fumes, and Gonzales’ ERA was 3.13 in his other 25 starts including a breezy final outing of 2018 on Thursday night at Safeco Field. He tossed five shutout innings, allowed two hits and struck out six before the Mariners’ bullpen allowed a pair of Rangers runs in the seventh in a 2-0 loss.
Gonzales emerged as one of the more efficient starters, not just for the Mariners, but in the American League despite questions swirling entering spring training of whether he’d even earn the Mariners’ final spot in their starting rotation with no minor league option years remaining.
The 26-year-old lefty from Gonzaga University and Fort Collins, Colorado, finished with a 4.00 ERA for the season and 145 strikeouts.
“I wanted to show I wasn’t just going to be a guy that was going to go five innings and hand it over to the bullpen,” Gonzales said. “I knew that we were as a staff kind of underdogs coming into the season. I think all of us were trying to show that we can go out and set the tone and I hope that next year we just continue to build off of that. I think we got the guys to do it.
“So I know as a unit we value being the underdogs and being the guys to set the tone and we all look forward to embracing that role next year, too.”
Fangraphs uses an algorithm to calculate players’ wins above replacement, and by that metric Gonzales’ 3.6 fWAR is currently ninth-best in the American League behind the Indians’ Mike Clevinger and just ahead of the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel. Justin Verlander leads that list at 6.4.
Keep pitching like that, and Gonzales won’t be considered much of an underdog.
Not that it changes his mentality.
“The people who have known me my entire life know that I feel even if I’ve had success I’ve always treated myself as the underdog,” said Gonzales, who won four high school state titles pitching in the state championship game in four years.
“I mean, I went to Gonzaga in spite of some schools turning me down. I went there and worked by (butt) off and got drafted and still kept that mentality. I wouldn’t be standing here if it wasn’t for that. I think I welcome that and I think I perform better when I’m in that role, too.”
Mariners manager Scott Servais said next year it will be about continuing to see Gonzales grow as a leader in the starting rotation, as well.
“From pitch development, pitch sequencing, understanding situations and knowing when to dial it up when he gets deeper in ball games, it’s been the whole package,” Servais said. “I’m really excited for him and proud of him, and you never know. He comes to a team after struggling a little bit last year, but you can really see the type of competitor he is, and when he’s healthy he has really good stuff.
“It does excite me going forward. We’re going to lean on him heavily. He’s earned that right. Think there’s a lot in there as far as what he brings to the pitching staff. He has a chance to be the leader-type as well. When he’s on the mound he does have that bulldog mentality and I like seeing it.”
Gonzales cruised in this one on Thursday, and he didn’t allow the first Rangers’ hit until the top of the third inning before escaping unscathed when Kristopher Negron dived to catch Ronald Guzman’s hard line drive to left field with two on and two outs.
Gonzales hurled both arms in the air just off the mound in excitement. He retired the final eight batters he faced before exiting after a comfortable 70 pitches.
In Gonzales’ final four starts of the season after he returned from the DL on Sept. 11, he allowed four runs in 21 innings pitched (1.71 ERA). That’s just better than the Mets’ Jacob deGrom (1.80) among MLB ERA leaders for the month of September.
Talk about finishing a season strong.
“My last one is done – and maybe I’ll go enjoy a bottle of wine with my wife,” Gonzales said.
He was asked about Servais’ comment about becoming more of a leader in his second full year with the Mariners next season.
“I think that’s truly the kind of person I am and the kind of player I’ve been my entire life,” Gonzales said. “I’ve always just taken it upon myself to lead by example and do and say the right things and be a good teammate. I hope to walk into a role like that, and I hope to be playing here for many more years to come. I hope that’s just the start of what we can do here.”
Let’s get to it. A few takeaways:
Opposite of how good Gonzales looked – that’s how poor the Mariners’ offense was.
Rangers starter Ariel Jurado entered Thursday with a 6.66 season ERA.
But the Mariners’ had just two hits and no walks off of him in six innings. Daniel Vogelbach had their first hit with a single in the second inning and Ben Gamel didn’t get the next one until he lead off the sixth with a single.
Kristopher Negron then grounded into a double play, but Mitch Haniger reached on a throwing error, then took second base with two outs for Jean Segura.
Segura dribbled a soft grounder back to the pitcher and barely left the batter’s box before he was thrown out. Segura was batting .323 heading into his second All-Star appearance, but he’s hit .262 in the second half of the season, with eight extra-base hits in the past 52 games.
“The offense wasn’t there,” Servais said. “We didn’t do much at all. We just didn’t square anything up.”
Kristopher Negron was at third base earlier this week, played some right field and on Thursday night was manning left field. It’s essentially his audition to be the Mariners’ super-utility role next season, which soon-to-be free agent Andrew Romine occupied this season.
Ronald Guzman hit a low line drive that way to lead off the fifth and Negron made a spectacular diving catch that had Marco Gonzales raising both his arms high above his head off the mound in excitement.
And earlier Negron lunged for a two-out line drive his way in the third inning to prevent the Rangers from scoring.
“He’s a really good athlete,” Servais said. “It has been fun to move him around on the field. He’ll probably be in there again tomorrow at a different position and trying to find out more about him.”
Servais said these past four starts were exactly what Gonzales needed to end his season.
“A lot of people question why would you even bring him back,” Servais said. “No, it was to finish the year strong and get the innings number up there and he’s done it. He’s gotten through an entire major league season. He had a little hiccup in August and we thought it might happen because we were running him very hard early in the season, and he was earning that, earning the innings, and looking so strong.
“But, again, big mark to get the number up there on the innings pitched and starts and that will only make him better in the future.”