Filling the role of closer on a struggling baseball team is like trying to sell lemonade on the median of a long desert highway.
You’re needed, and appreciated, but the opportunities to show how good you are just don’t come by very often.
Rayan Gonzalez is the Modesto Nuts’ closer, and at the end of the Nuts’ 2-1 victory over Bakersfield on Friday night, he got to show his value.
After two quick outs in the ninth inning, the Blaze got back-to-back singles against Gonzalez, who responded by blowing a third-strike fastball past former UCLA star Jeff Gelalich to end the game.
“What was going through my head in that situation was the next pitch,” Gonzalez said. “You’re always one pitch away from getting out of the inning. I made a bad pitch and gave up the line-drive hit, but I trust my team and I know that they’re there behind me, so all I have to do is make the next pitch.”
That’s the standard uber-positive closer mentality, and it might be easy to maintain when you’re on the mound in game-winning situations four or five times a week.
But for Gonzalez, who took over the closer role in May, these chances aren’t frequent. As a team, the Nuts have had only 25 save opportunities this season (through 92 games) and have been successful only 15 times. Gonzalez has converted seven of his 10 chances.
So as a closer, when you know you’ll be called on to perform your specialty about once a week, it’s a constant battle to stay focused and confident without real-game feedback.
“To me, it’s a matter of how I go about my business every day,” Gonzalez said. “I have a routine, and what I do on my side sessions keeps my head straight and ready to go when I’m needed.”
In this case, he was needed to save the victory in a strong effort by Jayson Aquino, who found himself locked in a pitchers’ duel with Blaze starter Wandy Peralta.
Modesto grabbed the lead with a second-inning run, as Pat Valaika reached on a fielder’s choice and scored when Matt Wessinger doubled to left-center.
That was all the Nuts would manage off Peralta (6-7) until the fifth, when Juan Ciriaco walked, went to third on Rosell Herrera’s single and scored on Chris O’Dowd’s groundout.
Peralta left after six innings, allowing those two earned runs on three hits and three walks against five strikeouts.
In many ways, he pitched better than Aquino (3-6), but the Nuts’ lefty was able to escape near-constant trouble, enticing the Blaze to go 0 for 10 with runners in scoring position.
Still, Aquino left with a 2-0 lead, which Bakersfield sliced in half in the eighth against Shane Broyles. He walked two and gave up an RBI double to Sebastian Elizalde before giving way to John Keck, who retired Juan Perez on a ground ball to strand the potential tying run at third base.
All that did was make the ninth-inning tightrope act by Gonzalez that much more dramatic. But even had the Blaze collected that tying hit, the Nuts’ closer said he’d be ready and willing to take on the next ninth-inning call to the bullpen.
“I don’t take anything as a failure,” he said. “When I don’t do the job, I take it as a learning experience. Because I’m able to do that, I’m already ready to go the next day. I learn from it and feed off of it. I have to get back out there.”
And the Nuts, for their part, would like to present Gonzalez with high frequency of save opportunities the rest of the season.
• Herrera started at third base but will leave this morning to fly to Minneapolis, where he will participate in Sunday’s Futures Game as part of the Major League All-Star Game festivities.
• Harold Riggins was Bakersfield’s first baseman, in his sixth game in the Cincinnati organization after being traded by the Rockies for pitcher Jair Jurrjens. Riggins was Modesto’s everyday first baseman in 2013, hitting .247 with 22 homers and 65 RBIs. He was hitting .263 with Double-A Tulsa at the time of the trade.