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It's been a long season of injuries for the Atlanta Braves' pitching staff, but there is finally some good news on that front. And it comes in the person of Mike Gonzalez. The Braves got a taste of what they've been missing on Wednesday night, when Gonzalez returned from the disabled list to pitch a perfect ninth inning against the Texas Rangers and earn his first save in over a year.
Atlanta's ninth inning duties have been in a state of flux with the mysterious sore arm of Rafael Soriano limiting his availability and the abbreviated return of John Smoltz coming to an abrupt halt with season-ending shoulder surgery. It has not been easy to cobble together a capable replacement for the closer's role in their absence. Now the Braves may not have to worry about that anymore.
"We decided in the eighth inning that when it came to the ninth, if we're leading, we're going with Gonzo no matter what," said a very pleased Braves manager Bobby Cox.
Gonzalez, 30, hit 94 mph on the radar gun, unleashing a flury of fastballs complemented with wicked breaking pitches on the Rangers batsmen. No doubt, adrenaline was pumping through his veins as Gonzalez rocked back and forth on the rubber and made short work in converting his first save opportunity.
This was the vintage that Cox and the Braves remember from Gonzalez's days with the Pittsburgh Pirates - great velocity and excellent breaking stuff. With his entire arsenal at his disposal, Gonzalez may have the saved the Braves in a number of ways. No pun intended.
"All I remember him throwing in Pittsburgh was 93-94, so that part is back and I think his breaking ball is right there too," said Cox after his first look at Gonzalez in a game situation.
While the Braves work to solidify their team in the face of all the injuries to their pitching staff, getting Gonzalez back with half a season to go may have kept them from having to pay a high price in prospects for a closer to help in a pennant run. Couple that with the fact that there are no guarantees on what kind of quality relievers would be available as the trade deadline approaches in mere weeks and you have the best of all scenarios - an in-house solution to a problem that has plagued Atlanta all season.
"When he's throwing the fastball and then he throws that curve ball up there, if he bounces it, they're going to swing at it," added Cox. "He's kind of like [Billy] Wagner in that respect. When he's throwing the breaking ball and the fastball, he's hard to hit at."
It doesn't take much convincing when it comes to opposing hitters, as to just how good Gonzalez is when he's locked in. The save against the Rangers is the 31st consecutive conversion for the lefty from Robstown, Texas. How appropriate that his return would come in his home state and in front of family and friends to boot.
Losing Gonzalez to Tommy John surgery last May severely crippled the Braves options last season, as they chased the New York Mets and eventual East champion Philadelphia Phillies down the stretch. There is some chasing to be done this season as well, but this time Gonzalez has a chance to be the difference maker at the end of the ballgame.