FORT MYERS, Fla. – Bengie Gonzalez wants to reach the major leagues so bad, he’ll do anything his manager asks, and he’s not kidding.
Go by Bengie instead of Benjamin? Sure. OK if we misspell it as Benji? Uh, fine. Move you around to three different infield positions, and even an occasional stint in the outfield? No problem.
Gonzalez even smiled, nodded and went right to work when a manager in the Pirates system came up with a not-so-simple recommendation for improving his game. “They said, you should try switch-hitting,” Gonzalez said of that startling suggestion, shortly after he was drafted in the seventh round in 2008. “I had only hit righthanded my whole life, but they told me if I could hit lefthanded, maybe I could use my bunt more and use my speed. They said, ‘You can handle the bat, you can do it,’ so I went for it. But it took me like five years to figure it out.”
Those are important years for a teenager hoping to make the majors, and Gonzalez admits it set him back at the beginning of his career, probably slowed his climb through the minors. By 2012, he was comfortable enough to switch-hit full time, but the Pirates grew impatient with his overall hitting progress.
Gonzalez, though, insists he has no regrets. He’s 27 now, but he’s a better hitter as a lefthander, he said, having hit .289 against righthanders last year. “I like it now. I love it. I feel great lefthanded,” he said. “I like lefty better, because I see so many righties, and I have good at-bats against them.”
The Puerto Rican infielder has had plenty of quality at-bats this spring. Gonzalez’s eight hits are the most by any Twin, and his .571 average (8-for-14) is also the team’s best. And Thursday’s 10-7 victory over Team Colombia was his best game yet.
With the score tied 2-2 in the sixth inning, Gonzalez drew a walk, stole second base, and scored the tie-breaking run on Eduardo Escobar’s triple. In the seventh, with the score tied again, 4-4, Gonzalez executed the hit-and-run perfectly, singling to the vacated hole at second base to drive home the go-ahead run. And in the eighth, Gonzalez crushed a 3-1 fastball and drove it onto the berm in left field, a two-run shot that was his first home run of the spring.
“It was great. I’m seeing the ball well, I’m waiting for good pitches and not swinging at the pitch that he wants me to swing at,” Gonzalez said. “I was not thinking of hitting a bomb or anything. I was just trying to let the ball get deep and hit it hard up the middle. And he put the fastball middle-in.”
Gonzalez even punctuated his big day by ending the game with a slick defensive play, going into foul territory to field a hard grounder and still get the out at first base.
He keeps that up, he might find himself in Target Field someday.
“He’s done really well. He’s been a pleasant surprise,” Twins manager Paul Molitor said. “He’s shown the capacity to move around the infield, and he runs a little bit better than average.”
Gonzalez signed with the Twins last winter, choosing Minnesota’s minor league contract over Colorado’s, after a strong 2016 at Class AA Jackson in the Mariners system. But as well as he played last year, he was disappointed.
The Mariners told him in the spring that he would be the first call-up if they needed an infielder, so when shortstop Ketel Marte sprained an ankle in July, “my heart was pumping. ‘I’m going to the bigs,’ ” Gonzalez said. “All of a sudden, they picked up a guy [Mike Freeman] from the D-Backs. That frustrated me a lot. That’s why I didn’t go back to Seattle.”