Late Wednesday night, Alex Gonzalez sat on the Cincinnati Reds grounded team plane, ready to fly home from St. Louis after another loss dropped the Reds further out of contention. His agent called to gauge his interest about something. The Red Sox, his old team, wanted to trade for him.
“Are you serious?” Gonzalez asked.
By Friday afternoon, the deal had been concluded. Gonzalez joined the Red Sox here today, a day after the Sox acquired him in a waiver-wire trade, and instantly found himself in the Red Sox lineup, batting ninth and playing shortstop.
The move had happened fast for Gonzalez, a surprise that switched him from a team veering toward irrelevancy to one in the thick of a playoff chase. Still, walking into the clubhouse today, he felt at ease. He knew Victory Martinez because of their common Venezuelan roots, and he knew several of his other teammates from when he played for the Sox in 2006.
“I know these guys,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t feel like a stranger, you know? I feel like I’m with family again.”
Gonzalez’s instant insertion into the lineup shows the Red Sox intentions for him. While battling injuries this season, Gonzalez has hit .210 with a .554 OPS. His specialty is defense, but even that part of his game has diminished since he last played in Boston. Still, the Sox believe his improved health – “I feel 100 percent,” Gonzalez said – will allow him to play everyday.
“Alex is going to play,” manager Terry Francona said. “There’s no reason to get him here and sit him. We didn’t get him here to pinch hit. We got him here to catch the ball and be a shortstop.”
His addition will likely mean less playing for Nick Green, who has been pressed into an everyday role because of Jed Lowrie’s ailing wrist. Since the All-Star break, Green is batting .125 with five errors in 19 games. In his career, Green has batted .199 after the All-Star break, compared to .256 before it.
While Green has made 14 errors this season, several advanced defensive statistics suggest he is actually a more valuable defensive player than Gonzalez because of his range. The Sox feel Gonzalez’s consistency at short will make up for any reduced speed.
“Some guys that are real fast, they appear to have ungodly range,” Francona said. “But if they don’t finish the play, it doesn’t really turn into range. Whatever Gonzie gets to, you’re out.”
Since he left the Sox, Gonzalez has endured a trying stretch of injuries. Gonzalez missed the entire 2008 season after undergoing microfracture surgery on his left knee. He played only in spring training, and the year without baseball tested him.
“It’s hard man,” Gonzalez said. “You have to have a strong mind.”
A new batch of health issues struck this season. He struggled through an oblique injury in May of this year. Just as he felt himself regain his swing, at the end of June pain flared in his right elbow. He had surgery to remove bone chips and missed roughly five weeks.
“I’m healthy now,” Gonzalez said. “I’m ready to play every day. I don’t feel nothing in my knee.”
The new challenge for Gonzalez had become playing baseball in a vacuum. The Sox are in the middle of a wild card-shaping, three-game series with the Texas Rangers, a team they’re 1 ½ games ahead of. The Reds are 14 games out of first place.
The disparity was evident in the Red Sox clubhouse when a Red Sox front office official walked up to Gonzalez, shook his hand, and said, “Welcome back, Alex. We’re looking forward to winning a championship with you.”
At the end of the 2006 season, Francona could sense Gonzalez had become frustrated. The team was falling apart, and Gonzalez’s playing time had shrunk. The feelings, in part, led to his departure. With his return, Gonzalez said, he has kept those feelings in the past.
“I feel glad to be back,” Gonzalez said. “They’re the best team in the world.”