Alex Gonzalez is providing the sterling defense the Red Sox hoped for. (AP Photos)
When the Red Sox traded for Alex Gonzalez, I wondered whether he was actually an upgrade over Nick Green, based primarily on the Ultimate Zone Ratings at Fangraphs.com. The five games Gonzalez has played for Boston are a small sample size. But either Gonzalez was much, much worse all season in Cincinnati, or I need to lessen my faith in those numbers.
Gonzalez has played fantastic defensive, the best the Sox have gotten this season. Green made some great and athletic plays, particularly on double plays up the middle and pop-ups over his head in shallow left. But the consistency and grace with which Gonzalez plays is, as manager Terry Francona put it, “something to watch, isn’t it?”
Gonzalez reduces improbable plays to routine events. His velvet hands look even better than they are because his subtle footwork allows him to make strong throws from any position. Last night, a ball deflected off of Mike Lowell’s glove and tricked toward left. Gonzalez quickly changed directions, swiped at the ball, and made a balletic, leaping throw for the out. In the ninth inning, he caught a double play relay facing right field. He twirled into a 180, like something out of The Matrix, and threw a strike to Kevin Youkilis. The throw arrived a hair too late, but the play induced dropped jaws and double takes.
“He’s awesome,” Dustin Pedroia said. “Anytime you get him the ball, it’s pretty much going to be turned. It’s definitely a comforting feeling when the ball goes his way.”
Gonzalez even makes the routine plays fun to watch. Doesn’t it seem like he never fields a grounder the same way? He’s got an innate sense of how to play every hop into an easy one. He could be talking on the phone and fixing a sandwich, and if a ball rolled toward him you’d bet on him turning it into a 6-3.
“You put a glove on him, it’s amazing how comfortable he is,” Francona said. “You hit him the ball, and you’re out. That’s a nice feeling.”
You probably cannot expect him to continue hitting like he’s been, but he’s also served as an adequate, lineup-turning cog at the bottom of the Red Sox’ order. After an oh-fer his first game, Gonzalez is 5 for 15 with a couple of clutch RBI singles.
Those UZR numbers are reliable, so Gonzalez’s strong performance probably indicates something has changed. Gonzalez fought a miserable stretch of injuries for the first three months or so of the season. When he got to Texas, he said he felt 100 percent. Maybe his renewed health and the boost from moving from an irrelevant team to the middle of a playoff chase turned Gonzalez back into the out machine he was in 2006.
“Playing for this team is great,” Gonzalez said. “I feel lucky to be with them again, especially this month. They’re going for the playoffs, and that’s where I want to play.”
In a few hours, the Red Sox open their weekend series against the New York Yankees. Still 6 ½ back in the American League East, the Sox’ focus remains on the wild card. For this series to really mean something around 11:30 Sunday night, one team would have to sweep – the Yankees would just about slam the door, and the Sox would leap back to within striking distance.
Is sweeping baseball’s best team realistic for the Sox? They played some of their best ball of the year in Toronto, and their lineup, with all parties healthy and Victor Martinez in the middle of it, suddenly became really, really impressive last night. But then, the Sox were playing the Jays. They were bad. Very, very bad. Throwing-a-live-ball-into-their-dugout bad.
The answer? As usual, we’ll see.
“We excited,” Pedroia said. “They beat up on us pretty good at their place, so we’re going to come out and hopefully play a lot better.”