Dicky Gonzalez looked like he had just run a marathon on Friday afternoon. Gonzalez was spent, and it showed. He rested his hands on his hips and breathed deeply, while beads of sweat rolled down his forehead despite the relative coolness of the air-conditioned Tokyo Dome.
“I’m tired,” the Yomiuri Giants right-hander forced out between deep breaths. “They got me running.”
This wasn’t an isolated incident. Since being sent to the farm team earlier in the year, Gonzalez (2-3, 2.26 ERA) has been working harder than ever to forget a disastrous 2010 season and regain the form that carried him to a 15-win year in 2009.
“I feel pretty good,” Gonzalez said. “I feel like I’ve come back again. Last year, I didn’t do too well. Right now, the way I’m pitching and the way I feel is 100 percent (different).”
One thing he worked on was increasing his stamina in order to go deeper into games.
“Last year I had problems with my mechanics,” Gonzalez said. “I got tired a little bit. Maybe that’s what happened. Last year was a tough year for me.
“But I’ve been looking at my videos and working on my mechanics and control. I think I’m almost there.”
Gonzalez set a high bar for himself in 2009. He arrived on the Yomiuri doorstep as an unheralded free agent after compiling a 18-20 record in four seasons with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
He was a different pitcher once he slipped on the Kyojin uniform, going 15-2 with a 2.11 ERA, 113 strikeouts and 0.98 WHIP in 23 starts in that year, helping lead the team to Central League and Japan Series titles.
His drop-off in 2010 was as surprising as his sudden rise. He labored through a tough year and finished 5-13 with a bloated 5.29 ERA in 25 starts.
As the Kyojin stumbled out of the gate this season, so did Gonzalez. He failed to make it out of the fifth inning in each of his first two starts and was sent to the farm on April 30 with an 0-1 record and 6.75 ERA.
Gonzalez pitched out of the bullpen briefly after returning to the top team in July. He then cemented a return to the rotation by striking out six over seven shutout innings in a win over the Hanshin Tigers on July 14.
Gonzalez has allowed seven runs over 40 innings in six starts since returning to the rotation. He’s only 2-2 during that span, but part of that is due to the run support (2.9 runs per game) he’s gotten.
“I can’t control that part of the game,” Gonzalez said. “I’m just focusing on what I can do on the mound and staying positive all the time.”
One thing he’s done is add a two-seam fastball to his repertoire. Adding the pitch was the result of a conversation Gonzalez had with catcher Shinnosuke Abe. So far, the pitch has been an effective weapon.
“I know a lot of hitters have come to me and asked me what I throw and what’s my new pitch,” Gonzalez said, “and they were surprised.
“They don’t know I throw it, so they’re not waiting for that pitch. As soon as I throw it, they’re surprised. Even if they make good contact, they hit ground balls.”
Recent results have given Gonzalez more confidence, and he’s noticed the team as a whole is beginning play a little better as well.
“I think if I keep pitching like this, I’m going to be proud no matter what we do,” Gonzalez said. “But I want to win the championship again.”
The Giants’ sharp decline in offensive production means the team will lean heavily on its pitching staff the rest of the way. Gonzalez is expected to be a big piece of that puzzle for manager Tatsunori Hara.
After taking two of three from the first-place Swallows over the weekend, the underachieving Giants are still somehow in second place in the standings. And that puts them in prime position to make a move to claim their fourth Central League pennant in five seasons.
“We have a good team and everybody knows it,” Gonzalez said. “We were almost in last place (earlier), and we’ve come back and we’re in second place now. Between our pitchers and hitters, we have a good balance now.
“We’re going to make it.”