MILWAUKEE – Carlos Gomez swung with such force that he spun around in the righthand batter’s box until his chest faced the third-base dugout, his bat slipping to the ground. He froze for a moment, facing his old team, but they have never seen him quite like this.
He had just driven a Kevin Correia fastball 436 feet over the left field fence. He stole a glance at his old team, the Minnesota Twins, then turned, began running, and scowled into the Milwaukee Brewers dugout. As he sprinted around the bases, he slapped his helmet repeatedly, perhaps pounding into his head a few of the lessons he says he has learned while performing like one of the best players in baseball the past two months.
The “Loose Cannon,” as Ron Gardenhire used to call him, is pointed in the right direction. This is Go-Go unchained. The raw, goofy kid who upon arrival at his first Twins spring training vowed to become a “No. 3” hitter in the big leagues was precisely that Monday, batting third for the Brewers and smashing two long home runs in the Twins’ 6-3 victory at Miller Park, for the second multihomer game of his career — and second in three days.
The Twins made Gomez the centerpiece of the Johan Santana trade with the Mets, hoping Gomez would become an All-Star center fielder. When the gulf between his talent and production only seemed to widen during his two years in Minnesota, they traded him to Milwaukee for shortstop J.J. Hardy.
The Twins subsequently traded Hardy to Baltimore for the baseball equivalent of a Groupon. Hardy has become a valuable player for the Orioles. Gomez is threatening to become an All-Star. Despite a slow start this season, he is hitting .331 with a .376 on-base percentage and .611 slugging percentage, with 10 homers and 25 RBI.
Gomez is transformed not because he heeded all the advice he has heard about slowing himself down but because he has decided to swing harder than ever. In football, this would be called something like “Beast Mode.” For Gomez, it’s “Go-Go Time.”
“Before, Carlos Gomez tried to put the ball in play, hit the ball on the ground, because that’s what people wanted,” Gomez said Monday morning, referring to himself in the third person. “That takes my ability out. That’s not me. I’m a free swinger. I like to swing hard, whether I have one or two strikes. When I step to the plate, I try to hit a home run.”
If that sentence sounds crazy, consider the source, and the rationale. This was the first winter in which Gomez did not play baseball in his homeland, the Dominican Republic. Instead, he spent “hours and hours” talking about hitting with Manny Ramirez, one of the best pure hitters in recent history.
“He said, ‘It’s not about working with your swing, it’s the psychology of the game,’ ” Gomez said. “We would sit down for hours, talking about baseball and hitting and situations, and he injected stuff into my brain that I didn’t even know. That’s why now, when I step to the plate, I’m trying to hit a home run.
“I may hit a ball to right field, but I’m not trying to. I’m letting my instincts and my ability do the job. I’m looking for my pitch, a pitch I can hit out of the ballpark. If they throw me a different pitch, I can make the change and hit the ball the other way. If I try to hit the ball the other way, I get in trouble, because I slow down my swing. That’s not me. If I run, I have to run hard, 101 percent. I throw 101 percent. Hitting is the same. Before, they wanted me to do 50 percent, but that’s not worth it.”
Gomez didn’t directly criticize the Twins, although Minnesotans might hear David Ortiz’s voice when Gomez talks about an emphasis on hitting to the opposite field. He said he appreciates “the opportunity they gave me,” and that he enjoyed his time in Minnesota, and that he still hits rewind when he sees Twins highlights on TV.
He said his hitting epiphany occurred in July 2011. He broke his collarbone and while stewing on the Brewers disabled list decided that he could no longer stomach being thought of as a slap-and-run hitter. “I told my manager, Ron Roenicke, ‘I’m going to change,’ ” Gomez said. “I said, ‘I’m going to be me.’ ”
With a sprinter’s speed and a powerful build, Gomez has the talent to play like different people. The Twins, seeing a fast player with little plate discipline, tried to get him to take better at-bats and portray a prototypical leadoff hitter who could steal bases.
In 2008, he hit .258 with a .296 on-base percentage and a .360 slugging percentage. He stole 33 bases in 44 attempts. “For someone who is 21, 22, I don’t think that is a really bad season,” Gomez said. “The next year I come in and have like 50 at-bats and they send me to the bench. It’s tough when you’re that young, being on the bench, playing twice a week. Finally I get over here and they show patience.”
Well, eventually. Gomez got 614 plate appearances in 2008 and 349 in ’09 with the Twins. With the Brewers, he had 318 and 258 plate appearances his first two years before getting 452 last year, thanks to platoon mate Nyjer Morgan getting hurt.
Gomez says he is playing better because he is in the lineup every day, but that might be backward. “I think he now has the aptitude to figure out what he’s doing, and how other teams are trying to get him out,” Brewers slugger Ryan Braun said. “He’s been able to control his emotions. It’s been fun to watch.”
Roenicke said when he was on the Angels coaching staff in 2008-09, “I knew exactly how to get him out — and we did. He’s not that hitter anymore.”
Gomez is a fascinating blend of boyishness and maturity. He plays like a schoolkid who has been promised ice cream for every home run but approaches his life like an old head. He married young and speaks openly about his love for his wife and son, and he displayed uncommon perspective when the Brewers offered him a three-year contract this spring.
His agent, the notoriously aggressive Scott Boras, told him he could get more money if he waited.
“I told Boras, get as much as you can, but I’m signing this deal no matter what,” Gomez said. “It’s peace of mind for me and my family. I sleep much better at night now. We’re human. We can get hurt. I’ll be 30 when this contract is done, and then I can take another bite.”
Gardenhire remembered Gomez faking bunts to draw opposing third basemen in and had to tell him, “Go-Go, the third baseman is already in.” Then, Gardenhire remembered, chuckling, “He’d fake bunt, fake swing, then fake bunt — all on the same pitch!”
There were no fake bunts Monday. Every Gomez swing was an attempt to hit Bernie Brewer, the Milwaukee mascot who stands above a waterslide deep in the left-field stands, smack in the mustache.
“If there’s more than what he’s doing now, you’re talking superstar,” Roenicke said. “He’s playing great. Defense is good, he’s stealing bases, and the offensive part has been the biggest improvement.”
Gomez’s first homer of the day looked like an expression of anger. His second looked routine. Correia threw a fastball down the middle. Gomez smacked it into the bullpen, and then sprinted around the bases. He doesn’t plan to slow down for anybody.
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. • firstname.lastname@example.org