May 18, 2016
By Jon Cooper | The Good Word
Matt Gonzalez will never forget the feeling of his final at-bat at Turner Field.
“It’s a pretty cool feeling,” said Gonzalez, who deposited a 1-2 fastball from Georgia sophomore righty Blake Cairnes over the wall in left-center field with one out in the 10th inning to snap a 3-3 tie and lift Georgia Tech to a 6-3 victory over Georgia in the annual Kauffman Tire Spring Classic. “I haven’t had a very good career here at Turner Field in my four years so it felt good to get that one.”
The home of the Atlanta Braves — at least for the rest of 2016 — had been a house of horrors for Gonzalez over his collegiate career. In the three previous Classics in which Gonzalez had played the Jackets had been outscored 23-2, twice losing and twice being shut out. Personally, Gonzalez carried a .182 career batting average (2-for-11) at Turner Field and an 0-for-2 with two strikeouts in 2016 against Cairnes to the plate with Wade Bailey at first and one out in the top of the 10th and the score tied 3-3.
Georgia Tech had let a 3-1 lead slip away Tuesday night and the baseball gods appeared to be messing with Gonzalez yet again. They smiled on him in the third when he worked out a walk and scored on Tristin Englsh’s two-run double in the three-run outburst. Then, in the sixth, they frowned, as an in between hop allowed a ball to skip past him in left field, eventually leading to Georgia tying the game. They were up again leading off the eighth, as a bad hop on a grounder to third worked in his favor, but he would be erased in an English 6-4-3 double play two hitters later.
Then came the 10th, when his competitive spirit over-ruled the baseball spirits. The result was an at-bat that was a microcosm of his career at Turner Field.
“I went up there my first pitch I was planning on bunting to get him over and it didn’t work,” he said. “So we had a hit-and-run on, which I fouled it off, that didn’t work.”
With no choice but to swing away, Gonzalez got a 1-2 fastball and blasted it out to left-center, his ninth homer of the season and 42nd and 43rd RBIs of the season. The homer matched his career total coming into the season, while the two RBIs gave him a career best.
“He’ll remember that for the rest of his life,” said Coach Danny Hall. “It should be the last college game played at Turner Field. He hit a home run to win the game basically.”
His ability to remember previous at-bats against Cairnes helped him win the game.
“I had faced that guy the previous two games that we played them this year,” Gonzalez said. “He struck me out both times on high fastballs so I figured he was going to throw me a high fastball. I think he just left it a little over the plate and I got my hands there. That one felt pretty good. I knew that was gone.”
While he didn’t miss the 1-2 fastball the third time around against Cairnes, he did miss what came after.
“It kind of blurred out. I don’t really remember what I was thinking,” he said. “I remember watching the ball then running around the bases. You kind of just find yourself in the dugout.”
He also missed the moonshot down the left field line by Kel Johnson that came two pitches later.
“I actually didn’t see it off the bat,” he said, with a laugh. “I was still talking to some people in the dugout but I watched it go out of the ballpark, which is a cool feeling.”
Zac Ryan, the Jackets’ fifth pitcher, shut down Georgia in order in the bottom of the 10th — he threw 3 ⅔ shutout innings — and the Jackets avoided a season sweep at the hands of their rival. It was a monkey off the Jackets’ back and comes as they prepare for a big week, as they host Boston College in the final series of the regular season beginning Thursday. A berth in the ACC Tournament is at stake.
“We didn’t want to get swept,” said Hall. “It definitely was a good way for us to start going into an important week.”
“It was in our minds but we didn’t want to talk about it,” Gonzalez said. “We just needed to come out here and do our job and if we come out and hit like we know how to and we play defense and pitch like we know how to we can hang in every ball game.
“This is one of the biggest games of the year and everyone’s always excited to come here so this is definitely a big win for us to get,” he added. “Hopefully we can carry that momentum into the weekend because this is a huge weekend for us and we have to go out there and do our jobs.”
Hall knows for sure that he can count on Gonzalez against B.C. then in what ideally will be his final ACC and NCAA appearances, and beyond.
“He’s a tremendous player,” said Hall. “I honestly feel like he’s a guy that will play his way into playing in the Big Leagues because he can play a lot of positions, he likes to play, he likes to work at baseball and he’s a great competitor.”
The kind of competitor that didn’t need a pep talk to bounce back from a costly error.
“He thought he had a chance to catch it and then he tried to pull up an didn’t keep it in front of him,” said Hall. “That was not an easy play but he’s going to go at everything 100 percent so I don’t get too mad at ‘Gonzo’ much because he’s going to go as hard as he can.”
That willingness to sacrifice allowed Gonzalez to get over not completing the sacrifice. Instead he removed a career’s worth of frustration in one cathartic swing.
“I’ll settle for it, definitely.”