Bringing Relief to Jacksonville

When a team that was supposed to be the joy of the Dodger system is 13-18, you can usually find a number of things going wrong. Such is the case in Jacksonville where the failure of the relief corps to hold games is one of the key factors. Thus, it's ironic that a member of that group was named Southern League Pitcher of the Month.

Luis Gonzalez can accept the award without blushing. While others in the Suns bullpen faltered with depressing consistency, he rattled off 15 innings without a run crossing the plate while on his watch in April. The string actually reached 18 before he was bounced around for four runs in two innings Monday night.

Gonzalez is a 22-year-old lefthander from Puerto Rico who attended high school in Melbourne, Florida, down the road an hour or so from where he's pitching now. The Florida Air Academy, to be precise, where he was mainly an outfielder until his senior year when he began pitching seriously. The Dodgers were actually looking at a teammate when they spotted his potential. They didn't draft the other guy, but they did grab Luis in the 11th round of the 2001 selection process.

He showed a fine fast ball in his first year, going, 4-2, 3.55 in the Gulf Coast League. However, he lost his focus in the second, was ripped asunder while pitching for Great Falls in the Pioneer League (0-1, 7.71 will give you the idea) and was demoted back to the Gulf Coast.

Since then, it's been a battle for him to use his good fast ball to advantage. He did very well at Vero Beach in 2003 (2-3, 1.48) after being moved up from South Georgia so was promoted to Jacksonville last season. There, he came apart again (1-3, 4.73).

His problem has been rather typical of young lefthanders who can't always locate the plate. He'll get behind on the count, then ease in a meatball offering that gets smoked. Batters feasted for a .293 average on his offerings in 2004.

Not so the case this year, at least, so far. He's been able to establish both his fast ball and breaking pitches so well that, now, opponents are scuffling over 100 points lower (.183 ). He's won three games, lost none and after his first bad outing still has a 1.80 ERA.

An example, the Dodgers hope, of his rising maturity on the mound at last. Now, if some of the others in the pen can do likewise, the defense steadies (something that has also been lacking) and the hitters live up to their potential, Jacksonville can become the team everyone thought it would.