ST. PETERSBURG — Brandon Gomes wasn’t horrible that first night in Boston last week, when he entered the game in the sixth inning and walked the first two batters he faced.
Yes, those two runners scored to break open a game that was tied at one-run each, and no, Gomes was not pleased with his outing, but ...
Mike Napoli walked on a nine-pitch at-bat where he fouled off three 3-2 pitches.
“Sometimes you gotta tip your cap,” Gomes said.
OK, walking Jonny Gomes on four pitches was bad. But, after falling behind 3-1, Gomes got Xander Bogaerts to fly out.
“I could easily have walked three batters that inning,” Gomes said. “But I didn’t give in, and that’s the positive I took from that game.”
The razor-thin line between winning and losing that Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon often talks about is even thinner for the boys in the bullpen, where a fraction of an inch on the location of a fastball to Napoli is the difference between a swing-and-miss for strike three or a foul ball to keep the at-bat alive, the difference between keeping a team in check or letting the game get away.
Gomes said it was no different in his previous outing when he pitched three perfect innings in relief of Cesar Ramos during a 4-0 win against the White Sox in Chicago.
Gomes had better command that night, but the White Sox hit a few balls hard. None were hits, though, and Gomes received the credit for getting the Rays to the ninth inning with the lead in tact.
Against the Red Sox, Gomes received the loss.
He said he analyzed both outings, searching for what he did wrong against Chicago and what he did right against Boston.
“You have to know what you did wrong and what you did right and use that to the benefit the following time you pitch, and that’s really it,” Gomes said. “I can’t be the greatest pitcher in the world (against Chicago) and then go out and walk two guys and all of a sudden I (stink). It can’t be that way. It’s a long season. You got to play the middle ground.”
Playing the middle ground is how relief pitchers have long careers. It’s also the last thing they learn.
The quickest way to gaining that peace of mind is being able to throw all your pitches with consistency. And the way to do that is to simplify your approach.
Gomes worked this spring on simplifying his approach.
He added a cutter that he learned late last season from Jamey Wright so he can get out left-handed hitters, and he changed his mechanics to where they had been a few years back when he was a minor league pitcher on the rise. The result is a few extra miles on his fastball that plays well with his splitter and the cutter.
“He’s comfortable with his adjustments, and being comfortable at this level is huge,” Ramos said.
Gomes broke into the big leagues in 2011 and pitched well enough to make the postseason roster. He exudes a bulldog approach on the mound and a quiet confidence in the clubhouse, but things were churning on the inside.
“My first few years here there’s a lot of self doubt,” he said. “You’re trying to convince yourself you can pitch in the big leagues. I had a good rookie year then struggled really badly the next year.”
Gomes wasn’t healthy, though, thanks to off-season back surgery that held him back during spring training.
“It doesn’t matter,” Gomes said. “Mentally, you feel you should be there no matter what.”
He missed 88 games last season because of a right lat strain.
Healthy this season, Gomes is equipped with an out-pitch against left-handers that affords Maddon the opportunity to let Gomes pitch to both lefties and righties and has transformed Gomes into something more than a right-handed specialist.
Gomes has appeared in 14 games this season with 12 of those outings being scoreless. He appeared in two more games on the road trip, working multiple innings each time, and did not allow a run.
For the first time in his career Gomes said he knows he belongs in the big leagues. He said he knows there will be a few more outings like the one in Boston, but expects most to be like the one in Chicago. Maybe not the length, but the result.
“I think everybody expects to pitch extremely well,” he said. “In years past I would think I was on a hot streak, where now I feel more like I can pitch consistently well instead of, ‘Well, I had a good run.’ That’s the goal for everyone to get to the height where you can pitch and carry that for the rest of the season. Not like, hot streak, struggling, hot streak. It basically boils down to consistency.”