His speed excites fans, and he exudes confidence, but so much about Carlos Gomez remains puzzling.
How could someone play five seasons in the professional baseball, like Gomez had before joining the Minnesota Twins, without learning that bunting for a hit and sacrificing require different tactics? And why this spring did Gomez try to jerk almost every batting-practice ball over the left-field fence — this from a guy who has never hit more than eight homers in a season anywhere — instead of cutting down his swing, putting the ball in play and trusting his legs?
“Raw” is the baseball code word for a gifted athlete who lacks baseball sense, and that term best described Gomez when he arrived in Fort Myers for spring training. Scouts said that Gomez, the only one of the four players the Mets gave up for Johan Santana who made the opening-day roster, had one polished skill — he could run. Otherwise, he was an undisciplined hitter with a strong arm and little clue about how to make his gifts work for him.
“This team has never had a guy hit leadoff like me,” Gomez said last week. “I’m 22 years old, and I have a lot of energy.”
Lots of teachable moments ahead for Gomez
True. But that energy still needs to be harnessed. The Twins concede they’ll have to teach Gomez the nuances of how to hit and how to play as the season goes along, knowing that with each breathtaking play, a forehead-slapping mistake may follow.
Breathtaking? Gomez drove the Angels crazy on Opening Night, with a bunt single, a double, two stolen bases, two runs scored and a nice ranging catch in the alley in right-center. In his first five games, Gomez batted .450 (9-for-20) with three bunt hits and four stolen bases in four tries. With Santana and Torii Hunter gone, Twins fans suddenly had a new hero.
However, two games against Kansas City at the Metrodome Saturday and Sunday illustrated what Gomez still needs to learn. And it included one hopeful sign.
Saturday, with the Royals pitching him away, Gomez struck out three times and fouled out trying to bunt in four at-bats. For several days, Gomez had worked with hitting coach Joe Vavra on shortening his swing and slapping outside pitches to right field. But he kept trying to pull the ball until the third inning on Sunday, when he poked a full-count Brett Tomko pitch to right for a single.
One problem. Although the Twins trailed 2-0, Gomez tried to stretch it into a double. Right fielder Jose Guillen threw him out, and the Twins went on to lose, 3-1.
“I’m a speed guy,” Gomez said. “I saw Guillen running to the ball lazy. That’s what I have to do.”
Manager, hitting coach loves Gomez’s hustle
Manager Ron Gardenhire defended Gomez for hustling. But the play offered a glimpse of what Twins fans should expect from Gomez as he learns on the job.
“The whole thing with him is, he’s so aggressive and he can get out of control,” Vavra said. “It’s like a stallion you’re trying to saddle up. It takes some time. The freer the spirit of the horse, the tougher it is to bridle.
“I don’t want him to lose any of his aggressiveness. I want him to get more under control, but you don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him to make a whole lot of changes overnight. We’re going to get a full cup of water from this player, but it’s going to come one drip at a time.”
Monday, Gomez collected his fourth bunt hit and stole his fifth base in five tries in the Twins’ 7-4 loss at Chicago. Though his .333 average leads all Twins regular starters, Gomez is 2-for-13 in his last three games, and even grounded into two double plays.
“He’s going to have some spectacular games, and he’s going have some 0-for-20s, because he’s got holes,” said Hall of Famer Paul Molitor, a Twins instructor who briefly worked with Gomez this spring. “He’s going to be humbled. But he’s 22. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.
“He’s like a lot of young guys. He’s got a lot of confidence, sometimes to his detriment. He seems to think he doesn’t have to recognize pitches, that he can just swing and he’ll hit it.”
Gomez seems willing to listen and learn
At least Gomez is finally listening, which wasn’t the case early in camp. Gardenhire attributed that partly to the language barrier. Gomez’s English is passable, though he doesn’t always understand what he’s asked.
“I don’t know if it was an unwillingness to learn,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t know anything about his past. I think there’s a little more trust with him.”
First base coach Jerry White, who lockers next to Gomez in the Metrodome clubhouse and tutors Gomez on defense and base running, finds him an interested student.
“He listens,” White said. “And the good thing about it is, he’s right here. You’d think, in five years, he’d pick up some of it. But I don’t mind. He’ll pick up a lot of that stuff. He’s got it figured out. The interest is there. It’s refining the baseball sense of it — what a guy is going to throw him, and where he’s going to throw it.”
Still, Gomez needs plenty of work to become a productive leadoff hitter. His puny .288 on-base percentage for the Mets last year included eight walks in 58 games, compared with27 strikeouts. Gomez already has 10 strikeouts in eight games, the most on the team.
When he drew a walk on Opening Night, Gardenhire said, half-jokingly, “It might be the last one.” So far, it’s his only one.
“Every player has to go through it,” Vavra said. “A few find it quicker than the others. A few don’t find it at all.”
Last Wednesday, Gardenhire took Gomez aside after Gomez failed three times to sacrifice the tying run to second in the ninth inning. All three times Gomez ran up on the pitch, as if trying to bunt for a hit, instead of simply pivoting on the balls of his feet and making sure the bunt was down before taking off. The third time, Gomez stubbornly tried to bunt even after Gardenhire took the sacrifice off. Gomez ran into the ball in fair territory in front of the plate, an automatic out.
The lesson for Gomez after the 1-0 loss was twofold: Stay in the batter’s box until the ball is in play. And if you choose to bunt on your own, it had better work.
“It’s a learning process with him,” Gardenhire said. “But he’s a worker. I think we’re going to have a lot of fun with this young man.”
As he learns, Gomez gives the Twins’ marketing staff a fresh face to work with. At Friday’s Welcome Home luncheon in St. Paul, Twins officials grinned as Gomez worked the room, shaking hands and flashing a quick smile. Everyone wanted to talk to him and say hello.
“Everybody knows the way I play,” Gomez said. “When you play hard, everybody loves you.”
The occasional aggravation may test that love. “We need to get him going pretty good these first two months,” White said.
More Twins news
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Kubel’s big two weeks: For Jason Kubel to play regularly, he has to produce against lefthanders who pitch him away, especially off-speed. Kubel kills fastballs middle-in, like his RBI single Saturday off Gil Meche. But because Kubel is so stubbornly pull-conscious, he’s dead meat on anything down and away. That’s how lefty Jimmy Gobble struck him out Friday night. Michael Cuddyer’s injured finger gives Kubel two weeks to show he can be more than a spot player.
Monroe gets his chance: One of the differences between big-revenue teams and everybody else is the paychecks of the players on the bench. The Yankees and the Red Sox can afford to pay backup players $3 million. Most teams can’t. That’s why Craig Monroe, who makes $3.8 million, will get every chance to show whether 2007 was an off-year or the beginning of the end. The Twins’ track record on reclamation projects since 2006 is not good (see: Rondell White, Phil Nevin, Bret Boone, Tony Batista, Jeff Cirillo) and Monroe was 0-for-10 before his sixth-inning RBI double on Saturday.
Locker-mania: New Twins shortstop Adam Everett learned the downside of lockering next to Justin Morneau on Sunday. Reporters crowding around Morneau, who homered for the second straight day, blocked a freshly showered Everett from reaching his clothes. “That’s what happens when you’re next to a good player,” said Mike Lamb, who came up with Texas. “I was next to A-Rod for three years.”
Pat Borzi, a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to the New York Times, writes about sports for MinnPost.com.