It's becoming a common occurrence at Camden Yards: Orioles lefty Michael Gonzalez walks off the mound and is booed by the home crowd after another difficult outing.
"That's obviously disappointing, that it is your home club. I have never been booed by your home [fans]. It's always the visiting team," Gonzalez said. "I take it in when [the fans] are doing it at the time. You can't help but to hear it. But once I am dressed and in the car going, I am over it. Because I know the next day I will go out there and get two strikeouts and a popup and they'll cheer."
Gonzalez signed a two-year, $12 million deal in December 2009 to be the Orioles' closer but was injured during the following spring training, then blew two of his first three save opportunities before going on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and missing 31/2 of last season.
When he returned, he pitched well — a 1.76 ERA in his first 18 appearances after coming off the DL and a 2.78 ERA in 26 games after the All-Star break.
That success has not carried over to this season. In six, Gonzalez is 0-1 with a 10.80 ERA. He has allowed seven hits, three walks and six earned runs in five innings pitched — and has had just one scoreless outing in six tries.
"The hardest part for me is getting hit around like that," Gonzalez said. "The hitters feel comfortable with me. It's never been like that. They have never been comfortable with my type of stuff and the way my presence is."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he has a sense what has gone wrong with Gonzalez, and it's not related to his 2010 shoulder problems.
"Physically, he feels fine," Showalter said. "There's a certain mentality that you get into. People think you have X amount of ability, you just throw it out there on the field. But it's a mental game, too. He's so close to having clean outings, and the next thing you know, he's thrown 20 or 30 pitches. That's what bit him. That's not him."
Showalter said Friday that he can no longer throw Gonzalez into any situation, but must be selective in using him. On Thursday, after not pitching for four days, Gonzalez was summoned in the eighth with the Orioles trailing 2-0. He recorded two outs but also surrendered two hits, including a solo homer to Michael Cuddyer.
"As you've seen, we've kind of picked our spots until Gonzo gets back as far as pitching with the lead or tied," Showalter said. "But he had four days off [before Thursday], and we need all our guys pitching well. And we're not going to let our guys sit down there too long. Hopefully, as he starts pitching better, which we know he's capable of, his meaningful role will increase."
If the Orioles need to get a left-handed hitter out late in a game, Showalter likely will go to Clay Rapada, who was promoted from Triple-A Norfolk on Monday. Gonzalez said Friday that it's extremely disappointing that he's not going to be used in key situations for now. He also understands why.
"Looking at the manager's viewpoint, you want to win ballgames. And if your guy's not getting it done, you've got to go with the hot hand," Gonzalez said. "I am not going to judge [Showalter] or anything like that about what he said. I think that is the right move in his situation, but I still believe I am going to be the go-to guy. That's what I think, and that's what it is going to be."
Gonzalez, 32, isn't hurting for confidence. He said he believes he is "still one of the top left-handers, one of the top relievers in the game." In fact, he said he was hoping to stay in Thursday's game and finish the inning.
Because, Gonzalez said, one good outing could ignite another string of strong performances.
"I feel good, and I am a click away from getting this," Gonzalez said. "Mentally, I am there. I have the confidence. I know what I can do. I know what I am about. History shows what I am capable of doing — I am just not getting it done right now."
His brief Orioles history, though, has been spotty. He blew his first save opportunity on Opening Day in Tampa last year. When the team came back to Baltimore for the home opener, Gonzalez was booed when he ran down the orange carpet during pre-game festivities. Then he blew the save that afternoon.
It doesn't help that his contract is the most lucrative awarded to a free agent in the Orioles tenure of president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail, who joined the team in June 2007. At the time, Gonzalez was considered a talented late-inning reliever as long as he was healthy. He's healthy now, Gonzalez said, so he believes the success will come.
"I have been tinkering with a couple things mechanically, and I have been trying different things," he said. "But at the end of the day I've got to be Gonzalez. I've got to be what these guys signed me to be, what has made me successful. And I have kind of gotten away from that a little bit."
He'll get his chance to keep pitching despite Internet and radio talk show pleas to release him. He is guaranteed $6 million this season and was thought to be a potential chip at the July trade deadline if the Orioles are out of contention and he is performing well. So the Orioles will continue to hope he can return to form. If he does, Gonzalez said, he believes the Camden Yards fans will embrace him.
"Obviously, I want more cheers than boos, and I have been getting more boos lately," he said. "But I can't fault them for [booing] the way I have been throwing. But I am looking forward to more cheers."