At the end of the 2013 season, Carlos Gomez’s true breakout campaign as an everyday major leaguer, he often looked like the Michelin Man, bubbles of ice bags protruding off nearly every body part. By the end of a season, after 162 games in under 200 days, the body wears down.
But Gomez had inflicted some of his year-end pain on himself, crashing into outfield walls en route to his first Gold Glove.
In the offseason, in which he turned 28, he had to re-evaluate some things.
While he may have just tapped the potential the New York Mets saw him eight seasons ago when they brought him to majors at the age of 21, Gomez knows he can’t play like he’s 21. And, he knows his body doesn’t react to playing the game like it did when he was 21.
"Today is important game, but not try to do something that take me out, like over running, stuff like that," he said. "Just be, especially if my team lost me right now it would be hard. Being smart and understanding what’s going on. For me, I’m a grown man now, you know?
"I have enough experience and a lot of confidence and I know when I’m not good what I can do to come back to the good."
Getting back to the "good" means beginning the work day earlier.
He arrives at the ballpark to stretch for 40 minutes by himself. He’ll get in the whirlpool. Maybe he’ll get treatment if he feels any soreness – all to get his body activated. He lifts weights on Sundays, to maintain his strength.
As a result, Gomez has missed 13 games this year, the bulk of which due to suspension (three) and a freak wrist injury suffered on a swing (seven).
He’s had some lingering issues to take care of, like hamstring soreness, but nothing that has kept him out of the lineup.
"It’s good to recognize yourself and make the adjustment by yourself to be successful," he said. "I get to the point sometimes I don’t feel right, it’s part of the game, and I know how to deal with it. I try to do more, do whatever that your body tell you to do that day. You learn how to do that. But it’s (not come easy). You learn to do it. Because when I’m 23, 22 years old, I’m not thinking about that."
Part of that adjustment was changing how he played defense – which may seem strange considering he came off a spectacular season in centerfield.
But the collisions with the wall – while a great highlight – wasn’t doing him, or his team, any favors in the long run.
His defensive preparation is already well-known, but Gomez realized he needed to do things differently. For example: Using his speed as an asset to go in on fly balls, as opposed to go back on them.
"That make it easy to play defense," he said. "The last couple months that I’m playing I haven’t even hit the wall yet because you know, it’s like you go to school. You get to the point where you have to go to the university. Then you graduated. I got to the point where I’ve graduated to the other thing (graduate school). I’m not saying this is not going to happen, it’s a game and it’s sometimes going to happen, but know that often and play a little deeper now so it make me less contact to the wall."
Brewers hitting coach Johnny Narron couldn’t help but chuckle at that, but he agrees with his outfielder. Gomez is a colorful personality, so of course he would say he was moving on to the graduate school of baseball.
"Every year you learn. I’m not a kid no more," Gomez said. "This is my eighth season at this level. It’s the average for big league players is like three and a half years, and I have eight. So it’s something that every year you learn and being around a lot of really good players, you learn a lot."
Offensively, Narron sees Gomez learning, adjusting – getting better. Even if his helmet ends up in the on-deck circle as he picks himself off the ground following a ferocious swing.
"Even though he is energetic and a lot of energy which equates over to the body movements, he’s still in control, he’s still consistent in his approach," Narron said.
With just five games left in this regular season, Gomez has a chance to set career highs in batting average, on base percentage and runs batted in. He’s already set career marks in runs scored, hits, doubles and walks in his second All-Star campaign.
"Well, it’s been a progression for him," Narron said. "This is my third year with him and we set a foundation for him, we set a routine for him, we set things he needed to do to be successful and he’s followed that and he’s worked at it. you get out here in a game and the excitement of the fans and the particular pitcher you’re facing that night and things can change on you, but he’s done a great job making the adjustments."
A great example of that, at least in Gomez’s mind, came in a 4-3 win over the San Francisco Giants and former Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum. Admittedly, Lincecum made Gomez look silly in a three pitch strikeout to begin the game. But then, in his second at-bat, Gomez hit a 2-run homer in the third.
Then in the fifth, after noticing Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval was playing back, Gomez dropped down a surprise bunt that drove in a run.
To Gomez, he got lucky on the home run. He felt it wasn’t good contact, and felt Lincecum got him out – "he still own me." So, in his mind, he rallied with the bunt single.
Years ago, he said he would’ve tried to bunt on the first at-bat. That would’ve drawn Sandoval in. So, not only would he not have had the ability to hit a great pitch out of the ballpark, but he wouldn’t have been able to get that bunt single down, either, with the third baseman playing up.
"After you have really hard swings, nobody expects bunt," he said. "It’s you thinking and seeing what they’re going to tell you to do, and step out, and you know, play the game right, too. It’s how the good team play the baseball and win a lot of games."
But what of the home run, and at-bats like that throughout the year? It’s surely not all luck.
For the answers to that, it also goes back to the offseason, to Gomez’s home in Santiago, Dominican Republic.
Gomez’s friendship with current Chicago Cubs minor league coach and former American League Most Valuable Player Manny Ramirez is now well documented, as is the fact that Ramirez often imparts bits of knowledge and small drills.
Heading into this year, Gomez incorporated a leg kick for better timing. To work on that, and keeping his hands inside the ball, Gomez switched his hands on the bat. So, a right-handed batter has his right hand on top – but in these drills, Gomez puts his left hand on top. Physically, the body will only allow an inside-out motion.
Gomez explains: "So, he taught me how to perform with the leg kick and how you have to time it. So, you have a lot of drill in the cage that make me be on time with the leg kick. Don’t be so big, stay more inside the ball. And things like that, when it’s simple, hit like when you’re left hand on top like this – and that make you use your batting had more inside because you can’t roll over when you’re like that. You have to keep inside. And watch the machine hard and just track, tracking, timing, timing and timing. Especially in spring training. I learned from that. And now my timing is almost perfect."
"It’s not good enough yet."
Which is why this offseason, Gomez will look back at this year and see how he can build on it, improve even further.
"It’s something that you’re never satisfied," Narron said. "When he says ‘graduate school’ he’s continuing to progress and continuing to implement his approach."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.