It hasn’t been the best of years for Eric Gonzalez, and he’d be the first to admit it. Injuries have dogged the 30-year-old vet in 2009, the ravages of time slowly eating away at his proven baseball skills. But he was ready when fate looked his way Tuesday, and as a result the Roadrunners are a game away from clinching their first-round series in the ULB playoffs.
Not expected to play as the Runners faced off against Amarillo, Gonzalez was thrust into action when second baseman Sergio “Keko” Guerrero was ejected in the second inning for arguing a call. All the long-time fan favorite did in his relief role was drive in the winning run and save the game in the ninth with a nifty double play as the Runners knocked off the Dillas, 6-2.
If they can win Game Two Wednesday at the Stadium, the Runners will meet the winner of the other semi-final, later this week. There, San Angelo, the regular season champ, will probably be waiting.
“The playoffs are a different season, a different story,” said Gonzalez, who was hitting a paltry .231 coming in, having seen his playing time decrease in recent weeks. “I have been hurt, and not hitting that well, but I can usually come through in the clutch. I have the playoff experience and when it comes time for the playoffs, I produce.”
Striding to the plate with the bases loaded in a 2-2 game in the seventh, Gonzo bounced one over third base for two runs. A few frames down the line, he would make the play of the day on defense.
It came after the Runners had chased Dilla starter Richard Jessup — who had blanked the home side for five innings — and led by four with one at-bat left. Closer Kelly Casares, so solid these days and having accumulated 17 saves in 2009, loaded the bases with no outs and yielded to Bryan Heaston. With the tying run at the plate, Gonzalez fielded a grounder from Stantel Smith, touched the bag for an out, and fired to home, where catcher Osiel Flores tagged the runner for a crucial twin-killing.
“If it’s hit to your left, you’re thinking second base,” said the La Feria native, in his ninth year with the franchise. “To your right, you want to head to third. I got the ball near the bag and I knew what to do. It just goes to show, you can be struggling but when the playoffs come, you can still come up big.”
The heroics from Gonzo made a winner of starter Pablo Oyervidez, who worked seven innings and allowed just two unearned runs. The righthander from McAllen joined the team Monday out of the Mexican minors, after starter Danny Rondon left to return to Venezuela, where he will play winter ball starting in a few weeks. Dillas and Roadrunners alike were scratching their heads trying to figure out just who No. 21 was.
Vince Moore knew, and after his newest hurler pitched the team to within one game of the league title series, he had an admission to make.
“That was a gamble, damn right, but I took it all on my shoulders,” said Moore, who has made all the right roster moves in recent weeks to get his team over the hump. “I felt like this guy had what it took to get us a win, and so I threw him in the fire.”
If Edinburg can win Wednesday, it will not have to travel to Amarillo for Game Three of the three-game set. Moore said that the prospect of a 12-hour bus ride to and from the Panhandle was not something he and his team want to deal with.
“I know we had to juggle the rotation a little but it worked out for the best,” said Moore, who was to send 9-game winner Tim Haines to the hill for Game Two.
As for Gonzo’s outburst, which came despite a lingering quad injury that has limited his mobility in the field and on the bases, Moore was not surprised in the least.
“That was a good thing, because even when Keko got tossed, I had Eric in reserve, and I knew he would end up doing something good,” commented Moore, whose bunch has now beaten Amarillo eight of nine times at the Stadium. “He’s the type of guy who battles and will come through in the clutch; he’s done it so many times in the past.”
And the Runners battled as well, getting a run in the sixth to make it 2-1 after two-out singles from Gonzalez and Hunter Owen were followed by an infield error on a ball hit by Carlos Hereaud. Two earlier miscues by the Runners had allowed a pair of runs off Oyervidez in the second, but Edinburg fielder flawlessly from there and Amarillo made the boots down the stretch.
To start the telltale seventh, Bryon Smith (he made three hits and a couple of the nice defensive plays at first base fans have gotten used to this summer) singled, with Flores bunting for a sacrifice and Wilmer Pino getting zonked by a pitch. A single from Vincent Blue and a wild pitch tied it and then Gonzalez came through with a high chopper over the head of Andrew Wong.
The fans down the first-base line chanted, “Let’s go Eric, let’s go Eric!” after the key shot, and later Mr. Roadrunner reiterated his main point of the evening.
“You can be hitting .800, a thousand, or .100, but sometimes it all changes in the playoffs,” stressed Gonzalez, who has won two independent league rings in his storied career. “It’s just a different atmosphere, and I love it!”