A month before he joined the Orioles as the organization's new executive director of international recruiting, curiosity took Fred Ferreira to the Mexican coastal city of Mazatlan.
With more than 40 years of experience scouring for international talent, Ferreira has uncovered many diamonds in the rough throughout Latin America. And his most recent such discovery emerged last November in the Mexican Pacific League, a world away from the intimidating cathedrals of the American League East like Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park.
Ferreira didn't need to see much to be convinced he liked this right-hander pitching for los Venados de Mazatlan. One inning and he was sold, as watched Miguel Gonzalez strike out the side on nine pitches.
"He may have pitched the inning before but I didn't know," Ferreira said. "I don't even remember his stats for the whole game. I just remember the one inning: Nine pitches, nine strikes, no foul balls or anything."
When Ferreira was hired by new executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette in December, Duquette made it clear that his top priority was adding organizational pitching depth. Ferreira made signing Gonzalez, who was released by Red Sox that month, his top international priority. Duquette said he liked that Gonzalez, now 28, advanced through three different levels of Boston's system last year.
Gonzalez's trip from the dusty fields of Mazatlan to the splendor of the major leagues — where he has emerged as one of the Orioles' most unlikely success stories in a clubhouse of many — is just one leg of a long-winding baseball journey that included injury and frustration.
"As a person I feel a lot stronger for everything I've been through," said Gonzalez, who is 6-4 with a 3.57 ERA heading into Friday night's start in Boston, against the organization that let him go nine months ago. "It just makes me realize that after all that hard work and all the ups and downs, I got the opportunity and I'm just enjoying myself right now.
"Every day I wake up and I still can't believe I'm here."
"The injuries hit him hard"
Before signing with the Orioles as a minor league free agent this spring, Gonzalez spent seven years in various minor league stops, and he came tantalizingly close to making the jump to the majors.
After his first year as a full-time starter in 2007 — Gonzalez was 8-4 with a 3.38 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels' Double-A affliliate in Arkansas — Gonzalez said he was told he'd begin the next season in Triple-A.
But he had been suffering from knee issues since he was 13, and he needed surgery to repair a torn meniscus, which kept him sidelined for all of 2008.
The folowing offseason, Gonzalez thrived in Mexican League and was selected in the Rule 5 draft by the Red Sox. That spring, he suffered a 90 percent tear in a ligament in his elbow, forcing him to undergo Tommy John surgery, which made him miss the entire 2009 season.
Gonzalez said family helped him through missing two full seasons. Gonzalez was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, but his family immigrated to the San Fernando Valley of Southern California when he was 3. Family was always a source of strength in numbers. His father, Miguel, was one of 16 siblings, and his mother, Noemi, has six brothers and sisters.
Baseball was always a constant, too. Games were usually organized by Gonzalez's uncle, Fernando Martin, and they didn't necessarily need baseballs. Tennis balls, sometimes smashed soda cans, would do, until they would break windows in the neighborhood.
"I knew he was a special kid," Martin said of Gonzalez. "He has a lot of pride. To him, it's all about his family. He'd do anything for any of us. He's a focused kid and he worked so hard to feel proud of himself, but to also make the family proud in him. … The injuries hit him hard, and I'll admit, there was some doubt in my mind whether he'd make it, but he was motivated to get back."
"He always stayed positive," said German Gonzalez, Miguel's 23-year-old brother. "It's one of his biggest qualities. He just never gave up."
"He looks a lot better now"
It took two years for Gonzalez to get his arm strength back, but now he's throwing 90-92 mph regularly, topping at 94. Confidence in his fastball has allowed him to get back to what made him successful, aggressively pitching inside and out and mixing in his offspeed pitches.
That's what impressed Ferreira that November night in Mazatlan.
"He was a case where I would have hated to say down the road, 'I had a chance to get him,'" Ferreira said. "And he looks a lot better now than I saw it on that day. Buck [Showalter has] told me and Dan's told me they're not surprised, but pleased that we gave him a shot."
Gonzalez is Ferreira's 61st player to make it to the majors, joining an impressive list that inclides Vladimir Guerrero, Bernie Williams, Jose Vidro and Orlando Cabrera.
But during spring training, Gonzalez wasn't among the many Orioles minor leaguers who received cameos in Grapefruit League games. Initially, he struggled to get innings in minor league camp.
However, once the season began, Gonzalez was nearly unhittable as a reliever at Triple-A Norfolk, and he was called up to the Orioles on May 29 to serve as a long reliever. He was sent back to Norfolk 11 days later, but with the idea of beginning to stretch him out as a starter.
He returned for good July 1. Within the week, three members of the Orioles' Opening Day starting rotation — Tommy Hunter, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta — had been demoted to Norfolk. In mid-July, right-hander Jason Hammel was sidelined with a right knee injury.
The Orioles suddenly needed dependable rotation arms, and finally Gonzalez had the opportunity he had long waited for. His first big league start came July 6 in Anaheim, just an hour away from his hometown of San Fernando and againt the team that first signed him.
Pitching in front of about 80 family members and 200 total supporters, he held the Angels to one run on three hits over seven innings for his first major league win. He then teared up telling reporters about deciding to wear a glove that fellow former Angels farmhand Nick Adenhart — who died in an automobile accident in April of 2009 — gave him in spring training back in 2007.
"Letting it fly and trusting himself"
Gonzalez had his growing pains, but he won four of five decisions from late July through August and has proven he can thrive in the spotlight as the Orioles push toward their first postseason berth in 15 years.
He threw seven scoreless innings going head-to-head with Cy Young Award candidate David Price in a 1-0 win at Tampa Bay on Aug. 5. He won at Yankee Stadium twice in the span of 33 days, including seven shutout innings with a career-high nine strikeouts in a 6-1 win Aug. 31.
"He's gone through some good lineups," Orioles catcher Matt Wieters said. "When you can make a lineup with as many good hitters as the Yankees' be guessing and looking — when you can throw your fastball by guys with two strikes — that means you've got them thinking and it also means you have life on it. There are a lot of good hitters in that lineup who are used to being able to sort of hit everything that comes up there."
Wieters is among those who have seen Gonzalez progress in his short time in the majors. The catcher said Gonzalez has been able to use his split-fingered fastball as a quality pitch in any count, as well as his changeup.
"I really didn't know much about him when he made his first start up here," Wieters said. "You see a guy who can locate You see a guy who can move the ball around, so I figured he'd be able to have some success, but his secondary pitches have really come around since he he's been up here. You sort of realize he has put-away pitches other than just being able to locate his fastball. That's why he's been so successful. He's been able to make hitters have to choose which one they want to hit and anytime you can do that, it's going to give an upper hand to the pitcher."
Baseball has also taken notice of Gonzalez. After going 3-1 with a 1.91 ERA in five August starts, Gonzalez was one of the top vote-getters for the AL Pitcher of the Month and AL Rookie of the Month awards.
"I think he's a guy that's just letting it fly and trusting himself," Showalter said. "He doesn't have anything to lose. Heck, he's had a lot of people in his career tell him that he couldn't do something, and I think he knows he's in a place where people get him and know what he brings."
"I learned a lot"
Over his last five starts, the Orioles have given Gonzalez extra days rest — as much as 10 days between outings — to preserve him for the stretch run. This season, he's thrown 130 1/3 innings between the Orioles and Norfolk — more than he's ever thrown since his Tommy John surgery — and that doesn't count 70 innings in Mexico this winter.
"Because of the length of time in winter ball and the time off in between, it's hard to gauge," Showalter said. "A lot of guys don't pitch winter ball like they used to. Miguel has because of the injuries. It's over a longer sampling, so you don't look at it like the conventional way people look at innings in a given year."
Gonzalez doesn't mind the precautions. He's finally living his life-long dream of making it to the majors.
"Did it surprise me?" Gonzalez said of his success. "No, because I think [with] all the hard work, all the ups and downs, I learned a lot here in the states in the minor leagues [about] how to pitch, and also [in] winter ball, playing [in Mexico] six seasons.
"I think I'm mature to where I've had a lot of experience pitching against big league level baseball players. I think that's what helped me out to get to this level."