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Miguel Gonzalez's spring struggles take on heightened significance after 2015 injuries

After his second straight tough start this spring in three appearances, Orioles right-hander Miguel Gonzalez said Sunday that baseball was all mental and momentum. And with maybe three or four more starts left before the games start to count, Gonzalez has to get both in order to be the reliable member of the rotation the team needs.

Gonzalez's rocky spring continued Sunday against the Minnesota Twins; he allowed six earned runs on seven hits and three walks while retiring just five batters, bringing his spring training ERA to 22.24 in 6 2/3 innings.

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He said after the outing that it was about his mechanics, which affected his control. When manager Buck Showalter was asked whether it was too far into spring training to write off such struggles, Showalter didn't exactly bite.

"It depends on how they pitch, whether I'll say it or not," he joked.

"You like everybody to be good every time out, for everybody to have that feel-good, but the reality of it is, you ask them to go do something and work on something, and through that, you don't look as crisp as you're going to be," Showalter added. "That's what happens.

"Some guys, they get to a point at ... different times of spring — usually depending on how much service time they have — they say, 'The heck with this, I'm going to get back into compete mode.' That takes over, too. I'm sure Miguel and a couple other guys are at that. It's just frustrating to see our guys throw so poorly, command-wise. That's something we can't do."

Gonzalez enters the spring in a unique situation. Despite being one of the Orioles' most reliable starters since he entered the rotation in 2012 and through the 2014 run to the American League Championship Series, Gonzalez's injury-hit 2015 was his worst in the majors.

Before a June groin injury put him on the disabled list for a few weeks, Gonzalez was right around his career averages, with a 7-5 record and a 3.33 ERA in 73 innings (12 starts). From the time he returned until the end of the season, Gonzalez was 5-9 with a 6.53 ERA in 71 2/3 innings (14 starts).

He also dealt with shoulder and elbow soreness that shut him down for all but one start in the last month of the season, which he made Sept. 30. Gonzalez has spoken of no physical limitations, but compounded with his struggles getting batters out and commanding his pitches last season, the spring struggles are taking on added significance.

The signing of right-hander Yovani Gallardo essentially filled out a rotation that also includes Chris Tillman, Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez. The Orioles have two days off in the first two weeks of the season, so they can set up the rotation to perhaps give Gonzalez a little extra time to figure out his struggles if he can't this spring.

And there's not a clear candidate to replace him in the rotation if it comes to that. The team seems to be stretching out Vance Worley, who threw two perfect innings after Gonzalez left the game Sunday, and Odrisamer Despaigne, who could get a start this week after 2 1/3 scoreless innings Friday. Young right-handers Tyler Wilson (three earned runs in six innings over three appearances this spring) and Mike Wright (seven runs in 6 2/3 innings over three appearances, with 10 strikeouts) are also candidates.

Showalter seems to understand that pitchers with good track records can struggle this time of year, and is putting Gonzalez in that category. On Sunday, Gonzalez spoke of the pressure players put on themselves to perform, especially coming off a season like he had in 2015.

The Orioles rotation is set through Wednesday, with a set of split-squad games on Thursday. Whenever Gonzalez is on the mound next, that pressure may be back on his shoulders.

"Sometimes you push yourself to be better, to impress people," Gonzalez said. "We all know what we're capable of doing. We all know that your teammates are going to be right there with you. It's a matter of staying positive and staying accurate."

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