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Friday, September 12, 2008

When Jonny Gomes marching home

Posted by on Fri, Sep 12, 2008 at 8:51 AM

Jonny Gomes is a lot of fun to watch at the plate. He's a truly professional hitter: aggressive but canny, potent, and rarely cheated—even when he strikes out, which is often, he takes a big meaty cut. Gomes has a classic power hitter's build, with strong legs and sturdy weight that is centered in his torso, which gives maximum torque power when he uncoils and swings.

Gomes has already seen significant playing time in Tampa: he has appeared in the majors every season since 2003, and he finished third in the American League Rookie of the Year voting in 2005 when his OPS was a formidable .906. Yet he hasn't stuck in the Show—probably, to some degree, because the Rays have a glut of talented outfielders, and also because he strikes out a lot—and so we in Durham get to see him in action.

On Saturday, the Bulls took the field at game time and went through their usual warm-up tosses while the stadium TV screen showed previous Bulls exploits. When Gomes, who plays left field, just in front of the screen, heard his name, he turned and stole a quick glance at some heroics he'd delivered earlier in the season.

In the bottom of the first, Gomes came up with a man on first and one out. He fell behind in the count, 1-2 if memory serves. At this point, many hitters merely try to poke the ball somewhere safe, or they take a gargantuan, irresponsible hack and go down in a blind blaze of macho futility. But not Gomes. He fouled off a couple of pitches that were too close to take but too difficult to hit well. He took a couple of balls. The count drew full, 3-2. He fouled off more pitches, but now these fouls were generating momentum: You could feel Gomes taking measure of the pitcher's motion and velocity. Where early in the at-bat Gomes was behind, fouling balls up and back, now he was ahead: He ripped a couple of balls foul down the left field line. His muscles and his reflexes were, pitch by pitch, absorbing the messages his eyes were sending them.

It was just the bottom of the first, and the game hadn't settled into a rhythm yet. The crowd, as it was all weekend, was so quiet that Gomes's at-bat felt almost like batting practice, or a demonstration. Foul, ball, foul, foul.

Then, by the ninth or tenth pitch of the at-bat—even I lost count—Gomes had finished his homework: He swung and launched a towering, Ruthian moonshot way over the Bull in left-field and far into the night, the kind of homerun ball that seems to keep going up, up, up and then out of sight. I can't imagine how good it must feel to end a long, hard at-bat this way: it's a convergence of brain and brawn, of sleuthing and swinging.

After the game, Gomes referred to a 15-pitch at-bat earlier this year that also resulted in a homerun, and credited that previous success with making Saturday night's possible. He also theorized that the longer an at-bat goes on, the greater the hitter's advantage. That may be so, but only if the hitter is as diligent and patient—as professional—as Jonny Gomes.

Sunday, Gomes again took the field before the top of the first inning, and when the Diamond Vision screen showed highlights of the previous night's homer, Gomes glanced back for another look. He went two for five, with another homer and two more strikeouts. 

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