Gonzalez showcases defense with jaw-dropping play

June 25th, 2022

CLEVELAND – There were many things that ran through Oscar Gonzalez’s head as a shallow, looping fly ball was heading his direction with the game tied, one out and a runner on third base. Yet on the outside, he pulled off a stellar double play in one swift motion.

At the time, Gonzalez’s double play in the top of the fifth inning -- catching a fly ball hit by J.D. Martinez and throwing out Christian Arroyo, who was trying to tag up and score from third base, at the plate -- was a game-saving play. But a three-run seventh for the Red Sox was enough to hand the Guardians their second consecutive loss in a 6-3 defeat at Progressive Field on Friday night.

But that didn’t take away from what we learned about Gonzalez.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pound slugger was known for his bat throughout Cleveland’s Minor League system. He also had a reputation for chasing too many pitches outside of the strike zone. But the upside in both his power and his ability to hit for average was too attractive to pass up. And since he’s been thrown onto the big league stage, he’s been everything the Guardians could’ve asked for on offense.

But what about his defense? Because the Guardians have as their everyday designated hitter (outside of a few games in either corner outfield spot), Gonzalez needed to be able to play a sound right field in order to stay in the lineup. He’s had some miscues -- including some mental ones, like when he threw a ball into the stands after mistaking the number of outs -- but most of them have been teachable moments that young rookies are bound to run into. The bigger picture has been that Gonzalez can handle himself defensively just as well as he can offensively, and he proved that on Friday.

“I just kept working when I got called up on my defense every single day,” Gonzalez said, through team interpreter Agustin Rivero, “and obviously [this play] came up with positive results.”

Gonzalez was playing slightly deep in right field when a 73.4 mph fly ball from Martinez tried to find some grass in front of him. One of Gonzalez’s underrated (and unexpected) qualities is his speed, which ranks in the 92rd percentile in the Majors, according to Statcast. He didn’t need to make up too much ground on a play like this, but having that speed at his disposal certainly didn’t hurt. And as he trotted in, the first thought was whether he needed to dive to make the play.

Gonzalez had to take a peek at the runner on third base to see whether he was planning to tag up. When he noticed Arroyo was set to run, he knew his only option to preserve the 2-2 tie was to stay on his feet. He turned on his jets and made sure to get to the ball without having to dive, making the catch down by his knee.

That’s when Gonzalez’s speed transferred from his feet to his arm, as he unleashed a 96.7 mph bullet to home plate that, after one perfectly-placed bounce, was a strike to backstop Austin Hedges to throw out Arroyo and end the frame.

“That was a really nice play,” Guardians manager Terry Francona said. “I think he knew if he left his feet he probably doesn't have a play. He got himself in position where he didn't have to, and he didn't try to do too much. The last couple of throws he's made, he's maybe trying to throw too much. He doesn't need to. He's got plenty. That was a really good play.”

Gonzalez’s outfield assist was the second-fastest tracked by Statcast this season. The only one faster? His own from May 31 at 99.2 mph. Across the Majors, just three players have recorded multiple outfield assists that clocked in over 96 mph, including Gonzalez, Baltimore’s Austin Hays and Cincinnati’s Aristides Aquino.

After Hedges applied the tag, Guardians starter Cal Quantrill, who was backing up the throw behind the plate, leaped into the air, both fists high above his head, and screamed out in excitement as he watched the inning end.

“Yeah, I think my reaction on the field probably shows you my excitement,” Quantrill said. “It's an incredible play. I don't think there are many right fielders who can do all the things that he does.”

It’s hard to compare Gonzalez to other right fielders, considering he’s played just 26 big league games. But if nothing else, Gonzalez has sent a clear message that running on his arm might not be the easiest.

“I can’t control what they think,” Gonzalez said, “but I’ll always make sure to be ready every time to make a play whenever it’s needed.”