DETROIT -- Oscar Gonzalez knows there’s still work to be done before he’s an everyday Major Leaguer. That didn’t stop him from having the time of his life during his Major League debut on Thursday night.
He recorded his first two MLB hits, showcased his arm a couple of times, made a nice catch and put his speed on display during the Guardians’ 4-3 loss to the Tigers at Comerica Park. Once he’d had a chance to breathe a little, he even turned around to waggle his tongue toward the infield following a groundout as he bounded down the dugout steps.
“This is what I've dreamed [of] my whole life, and since I've dreamed it, why not enjoy it fully?” he said with a smile through interpreter Agustin Rivero.
Gonzalez, you’ll no doubt soon learn, has true joy for the game. It’s just the type of clubhouse energy the Guardians were looking for when they selected his contract from Triple-A Columbus prior to the game. While there’s still some fine-tuning to be done on the field, Thursday’s performance was definitely a worthy trailer for what’s to come.
Pregame, Guardians manager Terry Francona labeled his newcomer “infectious.” Postgame, there was high praise for the 24-year-old’s 2-for-4 night that included a one-out knock in the ninth that he hustled to stretch into a double to give his team an opportunity to take a late lead.
“One, [Gonzalez] swung at strikes. If he swings at strikes, he's going to do some damage,” Francona said. “He's never going to be a big high-walk guy. That's OK; we don't need him to do that. But he hit the ball the opposite way. Hit the ball up the middle.
“I thought it gave everybody a little extra pep in their step with him here today.”
Gonzalez batted sixth and wasted no time doing damage with his bat, scorching a liner up the middle off Tigers starter Tarik Skubal during his first trip to the plate in the top of the second. The two-out knock left his bat at 113.1 mph, the hardest-batted ball of the game.
The ball, Gonzalez said, will go to his mother and father, who weren’t the only loved ones tuned into his debut: A group of athletes at the Guardians’ baseball academy in the Dominican Republic gathered around a television at the complex to root for their friend and countryman.
Gonzalez was a bit emotional watching the video of the group erupting into cheers as he singled to start his MLB career, pausing for a moment before offering -- in English -- “It’s hard. It’s good.”
“I remember a lot of players that came before me, and I was really excited to see them debut, so I can imagine what they felt seeing me today there,” he added through Rivero.
And there was much to like beyond the single. Gonzalez led off the fourth with a 108.5 mph groundout to second, his 6-foot-4, 240-pound frame barreling down the line at 29.2 ft./sec., two ticks faster than MLB’s threshold for elite speed.
Gonzalez was responsible for three of the top five hardest-hit balls in the game, so the power is definitely there, and it’s been growing: He had 37 total homers across his first five Minor League seasons before clubbing 31 last year alone.
He connected on a chopper to third in the sixth, displaying that speed again, this time at 29.6 ft./sec. Then in the ninth inning with the score tied at 3, he drove a one-out ball to right field. Even though it caromed off the wall straight to right fielder Daz Cameron, Gonzalez hit the gas and beat the throw with a headfirst slide ahead of the tag to give the Guardians a chance to take control of the game.
He was stranded there to end the inning, but his effort was not lost on Francona. Gonzalez’s arm was on display throughout the game as well, as he uncorked a 99.9 mph heater from right field to freeze Tigers runners in the first inning.
He also sprinted to snag a Cameron liner that was tailing into the corner to end the same frame with the bases loaded.
“Not the finished product,” Francona assessed, but also “there’s a lot to like.”
On Thursday, there was a lot for Gonzalez to like as well.
“[Tonight] was really exciting,” he said, “and it was everything I was hoping it to be.”
If he had to choose a favorite part?
“When they said, ‘Play ball.’”