By Brian Lester
Yovan Gonzalez played baseball again Saturday, marking the first time in more than a week he has been in action for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos.
Sent on the disabled list April 28 because of a back injury, Gonzalez returned with a bang, highlighting his night with a solo home run that soared over the wall in left.
Gonzalez was asked if he felt any pain on the swing that sent the sellout crowd of 5,038 into a frenzy in a 5-1 win over the Tennessee Smokies at Pensacola Bayfront Stadium.
“Nope, but the ball probably did,” Gonzalez said. “He was throwing hard and I was sitting on (his fastball). I put a good swing on it.”
It’s been a tough road back for Gonzalez, who was picked up by the Cincinnati Reds in the 30th round of the 2009 draft.
The catcher, playing in only his ninth game, said overcoming the injury was a grind, testing his physical and mental toughness.
“My back was so sore I couldn’t even swing, but I’m a gamer and I was trying to play through the pain,” Gonzalez said. “It kept hurting more and more and I was out for a while. The training staff did a great job getting me ready to play again.”
Gonzalez finished with two hits, nearly as many as he tallied in his first eight games (three). The homer was the first since hitting one last season in High-A Bakersfield and the 11th of his career.
“I thought he had a great night,” Blue Wahoos manager Pat Kelly said. “He is such a quality catcher and for him being able to swing the bat the way he did really helped the offense.”
Pensacola’s offense has struggled, scoring two runs or less 12 times in its first 30 games.
Saturday marked the second time in three games the Blue Wahoos had scored five. They did it on nine hits en route to stretching their win streak to three games.
Part of that success is a credit to spending last week with Reds Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, who now serves as a minor league instructor.
“Having Barry here was a big help,” Kelly said. “He told the guys not to worry about batting average and instead focus on quality at-bats. The guys bought into it.”
It was an easy sell considering Larkin’s credentials, which include a Word Series ring in 1990, the 1995 National League MVP award and 12 All-Star Game appearances.
“He played the game a long time and is in the Hall of Fame. The man knows a lot about baseball,” Gonzalez said. “He did a lot of drills with us and is a great coach. We’re hitting the ball much better.”
And playing with more confidence.
Although the Blue Wahoos entered the week with an 11-19 record and in last place in the South Division of the Southern League, they believe their recent success is a sign the tide is turning.
“We feel like we are coming back,” Gonzalez said. “Everything is about trusting each other and having each other’s backs no matter what. We’re feeling good and if we stay together, the numbers will come and the wins will come.”